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Latrinalia: "It's all in The Head"

By Mark Ferem

50mm Los Angeles Freelance Writer and Photographer
In the world of graffiti, bathroom graf is not so much like murals or throw ups, but more like regurgitations. We now occupy a space that is infiltrated by global multi-media carpet bombing where our mental environment is in the last death throes of private space. The bathroom has seemingly become a sanctuary or bomb shelter which takes the name restroom to a whole other level.

Latrinalia, (the study of restroom graffiti) a term coined by the late Alan Dundes, Professor of Folklore and Anthropology in his essay, "Here I Sit: A Study of American Latrinalia" (he preferred to the term to "shithouse poetry."). Also Renata Plaza Teixeira a Social Anthropologist with her Master in Psychology from Sao Paulo, Brasil has documented words and images from several countries in her work on "grafitos de banheiro" which in turn has furthered the study of latrinalia in Brasil.

Today bathroom walls are the place where neurons themselves splattered on the walls like butterflies on the grill of a passing truck. Where peeps come to download the digital dust gathered from the daily consumption of hi-def reality. The words and images of bathrooms cover a wide range from touret-rainman like rants to philosophers of emotional porn. These bathroom poets, the restroom sages are the infantry in the struggle for art, between emotion and reason.

As our culture becomes more contrived and eventually conforms to its own rebellion, we turn to the primal, the primitive. Bathroom graf it's really an act of ritual a metaphor for something greater, it's an offering to the porcelain gods, it may be an act of patriotism. After all, what's freedom without expression? And bathroom graf celebrates that freedom, the anonymous artists and authors, who found it in themselves to spew, regurgitate or heave the slings and arrows of civilized conditioning. The philosophy of bathroom graf may not be in the words or images, but the rebellion in which they represent.

Some may dismiss bathroom graf as acts of vandalism, but we live in a time where peace keepers go to war, so the question is who has control of the lexicon of our times, this ability to frame language in a way that excludes the disenfranchised. In these times the voice of reason may be armed with a can of krylon or a sharpie marker.

Acknowledging their existence is what it's all about, as we're all just passin' through these temporary moments, whether the graffiti is part of our psychic healing or our collective malaise, it wills itself into existence and the beauty of it maybe just that, this dialog of silence.

Bathroom graf dynamics have no motivation, with an occasional mark or sig it celebrates its' anonymity, it's spontaneity, it could be said bathroom graf is the last strong hold of resistance for pure self-expression. These nerve endings reaching out to touch something on a guttural level, not an embedded reality, but an unfiltered one that leaves an imprint on your soul. This consciousness is part of the ritual, these linguistic spiritual events that the graf delivers to the end-user completes the circle. This umbilical cord that connects us all to an understanding of who we are, what we love, believe and fear, even if it's for shits and giggles.

Like this piece: Actual graffiti from a Microsoft bathroom "Bill Gates Downloads Here", or like this one, one of my personal favorites and I don't know why: "Governments can make new laws. But churches can't create new sins!" from Tempe, Arizona.

There some differences in the sexes but it's quickly fading in the metro/role reversals of the 21st century. Women's graffiti have a tendency to be more conversational and deal with relationships; men's are more individualistic and political. The sex is spread out over both. A quick look back, in the Chauvet Cave in the south of France our Paleolithic homies produced a piece with pigments, carbon dated to 25,000bce give or take. They drew a vagina shaped cleft complete with undulating folds, placed over a part of the cave where a deposit of red clay had seeped through from the ground above. The artist male or female is not important, creativity and probably some of the first to have bombed a cave, incredibly cool cats. Surprisingly, it wasn't white washed by the Paleolithic conservative right.

Have humans always had the need to leave a mark? Or is it the oppression of ancestral conditioning that pushes these syllables on to the bathroom walls. Bathroom graf is not high art or literature in the entitled elitist sense of terms, but it is an expression of people's inner feelings and are therefore as expressive, even more raw than polished works of art, which means it consist more of everyday life that we all can relate to. And in the end isn't that what we're all trying to do.

Mark Ferem is photographer based in Los Angeles and is currently looking for a book publisher. He can be reached at

"It's all in thehead" is a photo-essay that documents latrinalia from around the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. And when time, money, and the planets line up Ferem wants to hit the road to photograph the memetic bathroom culture in other states.

Posted 11.5.05 by Unit

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