Friday, 18 March 2011

The Writing's on the Wall

Following the large-scale success of
the recent advertising campaign for
Viagra, its manufacturers are
rumoured to be planning an
audacious attempt to turn the
moon into a giant scrotum

General assumptions in life tend to indicate an element of truth, and as far as public conveniences go, the universally held opinion that men’s toilets are dank, filthy and stench-infused places certainly hits the mark, usually as a direct result of the patron’s failure to do so. A fitting environment then, for the darkest, most primal and often disturbing instincts of the male race to pour out. I’m talking, of course, about the universal constant of lavatorial scrawling. Being (relatively) ignorant to the goings on in the world of female toilets, I shall forego speculation into those sweet smelling Arcadias. I have, however, amassed enough reluctant experience of the underworld that is the Gents to pour comment.

Mid urination, lift your eyes for a moment from the foaming, golden Styx and you will invariably see an artistic representation of a Penis. I use the term artistically quite loosely, though the phallic scribblings rendered on tiles up and down the country, and for that matter around the world, do tend to deviate from the strictly anatomic to a startling degree. Sometimes flaccid, sometimes erect; sometimes complete with hair, sometimes incongruously without. Some even opt for ejaculatory actions shots which provide a dynamism hard to capture within a still frame. It is tempting to impute these genital monstrosities simply to the limits of male thought association, yet there does seem to be an almost Darwinian beauty to the parallelism of the capability to simultaneously hold one’s own penis with one hand and create an artistic replica with the other. I suspect (though I don’t know) that women rarely reproduce vaginal scribblings in the same way on the sanctified walls of their latrine, though if they did I suspect they may be more faithfully recreated than their male counterparts, possibly with coloured felt tip shading. Purely speculation of course.

Cave paintings they may not be, but the fascination with inscribing the male member onto the toilet wall of time is as old as the hills. The Saxons after all felt it necessary to suggest for posterity that their virility knew no bounds, as any low flying aircraft over the hills of Dorchester will hardly fail to testify. The magnificent 180 ft tall Cerne Abbas hill figure is really nothing other than a cubicle scribble for people with too much time on their hands. These days, a marker pen on the wall is the only subconscious Freudian manifestation we can readily fit into out busy schedules. Even religious imagery relies heavily on the phallic. Ok, Jesus maybe not, but the Hindu gods make no secret of their virility, and the icons plastered on walls and temples throughout India are as explicit as a public lavatory in Dudley, if a little holier.

Perhaps it’s an ideological thing; the cultural saturation of discourses on masculinity has led to a situation where men do not feel comfortable with open discussion of their bodies and candour as to anatomic size ratios. This then, would suggest that the inscriptions on toilet walls are an attempt at self-justification, an effort to carry out a comparative study to establish if they are, in fact, normal. Either that or the opposite is true, and constitutes a habitual self-aggrandisement. Whatever the case, while penises constitute the most common graffiti item in the Gents, they are joined by a happy throng of offensive messages, abbreviated football team loyalties, the odd swastika and more than a few solicitations to partake in a little fellatio.

Having had the good fortune to study at an arts university, I have been exposed to an entirely different lavatorial experience. The penises are still there, of course, but nestled alongside is some truly hilarious and pseudo-philosophical, how shall I put it, bullshit. This varies from genuine attempts at toilet philosophy to the feverish ramblings of mind-rotted students fresh from a bout of hefty revision on political theory. ‘Foucault fucks freshers’ was a particular favourite of mine before the cleaning staff had the temerity to wipe from posterity that particularly poetic piece of rhetoric.

The act of tagging, the undecipherable signatures that ‘professional’ graffiti artists insist on leaving dotted around in the same manner as a dog pissing on a tree, seems to me the height of stupidity. It’s a little like a serial killer in a Sherlock Holmes story leaving a white glove or sprig of lavender at the scene of each crime. It’s essentially a perpetual act of self incrimination, and dooms the perpetrator to an Dante-esque punishment of spending longer cleaning the stuff off the wall than it took to put up. Perhaps the Penis symbol is the work of a single, particularly prolific ‘artist’. If that were the case, you’d have to applaud the endeavour. Maybe even an MBE for services to street art?

Just when does graffiti become ‘art’ anyway? Admittedly, some of the stuff along any given stretch of rail line is actually pretty good; pointless, but good. Is it art for art’s sake, or simply the manifestation of disaffected youth, bored to the point of being willing to risk life and limb on the railway for the sake of spraying a wall? Or is it for the commuter’s enjoyment? A nice sentiment, but probably not. A few years ago there was a governmental drive to bring graffiti artists into the fold, to lend some legality to their practise by apportioning areas of urban decay for them to work their magic. This, predictably, resulted in vast areas of inner cities plastered with graffiti paint; the very same graffiti paint that contributed to the urban decay in the first place. Suffice to say, apart from nominating the theme, this achieved very little. I might be being a little harsh; after all, it’s not different to what Michelangelo did with the Sistine chapel. His sanctioned fresco is really a renaissance equivalent of a miscreant with a spray can approaching a wall behind Tesco.

Finally, I read recently about a piece of toilet graffiti that is particularly shocking. Various contributors have combined to inscribe the entire first chapter of the first Harry Potter book onto a cubicle wall, to the general praise and approbation of all. Possibly the worst public crime ever recorded, this act of defilement has not only gone unpunished but was actively encouraged. Given that there are an interminable number of tautologous volumes in that particular series, there is a risk that public conveniences up and down the land may be overrun with the infestation of Hermione and co. This would be a huge shame and as a nation, we must not let such ephemeral cultural phenomena run roughshod over countless centuries of graffiti tradition. Give me the penises any day.