Friday, April 9, 2010

Bathroom Stall Graffiti in Edmonton

By Jocelyn Boyd, Jeannette Guertin, and Jennifer Shepherd


What is Graffiti?


Wikipedia offer’s the following definition for Graffiti: “is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property” (Wikipedia). Graffiti has evolved from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire where people would scratch on walls. In modern times, individuals utilize spray paint, markers, pens, etc. General graffiti is considered to be vandalism however it can also communicate social and political messages.


Social Theory About Graffiti


French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu stated that “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 60). He spoke of the distinction between what is generally accepted as beautiful and what is considered ugly or vulgar. The “distinctions between different kinds of taste cultures have traditionally been understood as the difference between high and low culture” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 60). Bourdieu states,

The most common definition of culture throughout history was the idea of the best of a given culture. However, this definition was highly class-based, with those cultural pursuits of the ruling class seen as high culture and the activities of the working class as low culture. (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 61)

Graffiti is often perceived as a negative, certainly not the “best” a culture has to offer. In this regard, graffiti is seen as an act of counter-culture behaviour, an activity pursued by those of “low class/low culture”.


Why We Originally Chose Fast Foods Restaurants


Our blog group originally hypothesized that we would find graffiti in fast food restaurants because they were available to all demographics. We also believed that the restaurants were especially accessible to youth who would be more likely to want to leave graffiti. We posed a theory that we would find more graffiti in lower class neighbourhoods than we would in higher class ones. Our group thought that those living in better neighbourhoods, regardless of age, would be less likely to vandalize a business in their own community, where neighbourhood pride and property taxes would be higher.


What We Actually Found


We found a noticeable absence of any graffiti at all. We found the washrooms in all the fast food restaurants we entered were kept very clean and tidy. Graffiti is often associated with a lower class untidiness and neglect of generally accepted cleaning practices, but this was not the case. Many washrooms had notices posted about cleanliness and hygienic hand washing practices. Many also recorded and posted the scheduled time cleaning was performed.

We believe that there was in fact graffiti on the various walls at various times, but many franchised companies have policies that dictate that the restaurants maintain a standard of cleaning performed on a regular and thorough basis. Graffiti is perceived to be a type of vandalism and an ugly negative that should be removed.



Why we Changed to Various Public Places Including Coffee Shops, Theatres and Mall Washrooms


Our blog group had expected to find graffiti in fast food restaurants easily, but were dismayed when we actually found very little, almost none at all in approximately thirty fast food restaurants spanning Edmonton. We expanded our visual research to include a variety of coffee shops, theatres and mall washrooms. We found the same results in many of our targeted and random stops.


What Happened to the Graffiti?



Why we Changed to Various Public Places


Our blog group had expected to find graffiti in fast food restaurants easily, but were dismayed when we actually found very little, almost none at all in approximately thirty fast food restaurants spanning Edmonton. We expanded our visual research to include a variety of coffee shops, theatres and mall washrooms. We found the same results in many of our targeted and random stops.


What Happened to the Graffiti?



Bathroom Music Graffiti Folklore


Graffiti has entered the realm of popular culture folklore, especially in music. Musicians have often been portrayed as rebels, originators of trends, and are generally thought to believe in counter-culture activities.


The Rolling Stones and the Beggar’s Banquet Album Cover


The Rolling Stones have often tried, and succeeded, in pushing societal boundaries in their music and lifestyles. The original artwork for the cover of the vinyl album, Beggar’s Banquet, featured a shabby bathroom stall in which the wall was covered in graffiti, including the band named in large red lettering. Abcko Records, which distributed Rolling Stones albums at the time, deemed the cover “too vulgar” for the record buying public. One could question whether or not the record buying public, who would actually purchase the band’s music, would in reality have been offended b y the artwork. The counter-culture image the Rolling Stones portrayed and promoted appealed to many of the same mindset. Interestingly the graffiti on the cover contained no vulgar images nor text. In response to Abcko refusing to print and distribute the record with the perceived offensive cover, the Rolling Stones took a rebel stand and chose to release the album with a blank white cover with only the title and the text, “R.S.V.P.” on the front. If they couldn’t have the artwork they wanted then there would be no artwork at all.



Bathroom Graffiti as Lyrical Content



One hit wonder, Tommy Tutone was responsible for the mega-hit, “Jenny Jenny 867-5309”. Pop music history tells the story that the song writer saw the name “Jenny” written on a bathroom wall in reference to “for a good time call....” The band parlayed the graffiti into one of the largest hits of the 1980s, with an accompanying video, which was often played on MTV (Music Television). With catchy lyrics and a phone number the song took on a life of its own. Unfortunately, the graffiti writer neglected to also add the area code for “Jenny”. Across the United States anyone who had a telephone number with those seven digits were interrupted at all hours by pranksters looking to hook-up with Jenny. This resulted in many changing their numbers to something less popular, and less annoying.


Recently the phone number was auctioned off on Ebay where the bidding reached $350,000. The New Jersey number was one of the last active numbers in the United States. The song is still popular among those who find “drunk dialling” (drunk dialling: when an inebriated individual picks up the phone and randomly calls friends or strangers for entertainment, pranking, or conversation) to be a leisure time activity worth pursuing.


As luck, or karma would have it, in our search for bathroom graffiti we found this particular item in a stall in the women’s washroom at West Edmonton Mall IMAX Theatre. Our timing was spectacular as the offending graffiti was removed by theatre staff when I exited the stall.




The Use of Graffiti as Expression


Numerous friends and acquaintances suggested various places that they knew of where we could find graffiti. Many of these were located on, or near the University of Alberta campus. Apparently higher education and student loans are synonymous with the desire to add graffiti to bathroom walls. The most recommended location was the Remedy Cafe on 109 Street and 87 Avenue. A popular place to grab a Chai Latte, Remedy encourages graffiti in its washrooms. Its only stipulation is that the graffiti is not vulgar or racist...(a fair request we think!)



The graffiti we found at various locations generally fell into stereotypical categories: social statements, cerebral thoughts, slander, art/drawings, call to action, hippie sentiments, vulgarities, and response to graffiti already left. Often the graffiti which is left in response to another carries a lot of humour, probably more than the original graffiti writer intended.



The Panopticon

The bathroom stall is one of the last areas where we are sure of complete privacy. With the technology we have available to us today, there is always the possibility that we may be watched or recorded. With one click of a button anyone with a cell phone can take our picture of take a video of our actions. The bathroom stall is one place we are ensured complete privacy from the peering eyes of others. Because of this anonymity afforded to us in bathroom stalls, it removes the panoptic gaze we are under in the rest of our lives. The panopticon was a concept first introduced by the 18th century philosophy Jeremy Bentham.


Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Bentham wrote extensive literature on the penile system and punishment. He outlined many goals of the government (Semple 1993), and the way that penitentiaries should punish inmates, the set up of prisons, and how to manage prisoners among many other things. One of his most well known ideas is the Panopticon. The Panopticon was Bentham’s suggested structure for prisons. It would consist of a circular building where the cells were contained around the perimeter of the circle (Semple1993). At the centre of the cells would be an observation tower. In this tower, the guards would be able to see and hear all activity of any of the inmates at all times.


Although the guards where able to see every cell, the inmates were not able to see the guards. The inmates were never aware of when they were being watched (Semple 1993). With the design of the building, all inmates had the potential to be watched at any time. Because of the power the guard had to observe the inmates at any time, without themselves being observed, Bentham suggested that this would provide mental power for the guards over the inmates. The inmates would imagine that they were being watched at all times and because of this, they would self monitor; in other words, they would be on their best behavior because they felt that someone was observing them. The prisoners believed themselves to be under a constant gaze from the guard which caused them to act as though they were truly being watched (Sturken and Cartwright 2009).


Because the inmates were not able to know when the guards were truly watching them, this created uncertainty. This uncertainty of the inmates made them surrender to the potential surveillance from the guards (Lyon 1993). Bentham suggested that because of the felt sense of being watched, this would create inmates that were easier to manage. The set up of the prison would also mean that they would be able to control a large population of inmates with much fewer guards as the inmates are never able to see the guards and when they were being watched.


Michel Foucault’s Panoptic Gaze


Michel Foucault was a 20th century French philosopher and sociologist. Foucault believed that in modern society we are subjected to a panoptic gaze of surveillance. In our society we are always being watched both by other people, and by surveillance technology such as cameras. This creates the same sense of being under constant watch as Bentham’s proposed prison (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). The privacy afforded to us by the bathroom stall removes the panoptic gaze. We no longer have to practice self regulating activity as there is no chance that we are being watched.

Foucault argued that we create power relationships through visibility and invisibility (Crossley 1993). The power in the relationship is given to those who are invisible and anonymous (Crossley 1993). They have the ability to act as they please without being observed. In the case of the prison panopticon, the guards in the tower hold the power over the inmates. They are able to observe all of the inmate’s activities at any time without the inmates ever being able to see the guards in the central tower. In society, the individuals with power are those who are watching others, those behind the cameras etc. The individuals in society who are the subjects of power (like the inmates in the prison) are those who are being watched, or have the potential to be observed at any time. Just as the inmates internalize the idea that they are constantly watched, we in society also internalize the feeling of a constant outside gaze (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). Because we feel that we are being watched, we regulate our behavior to ensure that we are not caught stepping outside of the acceptable societal boundaries.


In the modern age of technology, there is a constant use of surveillance. People are always subjected to the gaze of other individuals and of technology. The power of the panoptic surveillance is that there is the possibility that if one is doing something outside acceptable boundaries, they could be caught (Crossley 1993). Foucault suggests that this causes people to monitor their behavior, and it deters people from misbehaving both in the prison setting and in society. The “panoptic power is the effect achieved through the realization that one is subjected to the gaze” (Crossley 1993, 403). We are controlled by the gaze of those who have power over us. This gaze forces us to regulate our behavior when we believe we are within the public eye of technology or other people.


Bathroom Stall Graffiti and the Removal of Panoptic Surveillance


We are under constant observation in almost everything we do in our day to day lives. One of the only places we are able to be completely anonymous and completely free from observation is when we enter the bathroom. There is no possibility that there are surveillance cameras in the bathrooms so we are free from technology’s gaze. Secondly we enter into individual stalls of the bathroom, and are therefore removed from the gaze and observation of other people. We are no longer the subjects of the power; we have the power and are in complete control. There is no need for the self-regulating behavior as the only person who knows what you are doing is you. You no longer have to answer to anyone else if you step outside the acceptable boundaries.


The lack of a panoptic gaze in the bathroom stalls is the reason we suspect that graffiti frequently appears on the walls. Those individuals who are writing on the bathroom stalls are not delinquents who would necessarily expand their destructive behaviors to the outside world (such as buildings, trains, etc.). In the bathroom stall they are free to step out of the normal boundaries because no one is there to catch them. They are free to express themselves, or express some minor delinquent desires and there is virtually no chance of being caught. They cannot be caught and therefore would never have to face any of the consequences of their actions. The amount of time spent in the bathroom and the brief “relief” from the constant surveillance makes it a prime area for individuals to take a small step into deviant behaviour.


Graffiti: What is the Message?


Marshall McLuhan created a phrase “the medium is the message”, in reference to modern society and our interpretations of the signs, pictures, and media which comprise our reality. McLuhan thought of media as “an extension of the human body or the mind” (McLuhan 2003, xiv). For example, clothing extends our skin. He goes on to say that media comes in pairs and that one media contains the other; for example, graffiti contains the printed word, which contains writing, which contains speech. McLuhan explains that


The contained medium is the message of the containing one, but effects of the latter are obscured for the user who focuses on the former. Because those effects are so powerful, any message, in the ordinary sense of “content” or “information”, has far less impact than the medium itself. Thus, the medium is the message. (McLuhan 2003. xv)


To clarify this discourse and relate it to graffiti, “The medium is the message”, means that the form of a medium (bathroom stall graffiti) is itself embedded in the message which we are interpreting (the actual writing on the wall) and thus it creates a relationship between the viewer and the medium, where the medium itself influences how the message is perceived by the viewer. For example, a piece of graffiti at Remedy cafe was a quote from the Dalai Lama.


“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – Dalai Lama


McLuhan would say that graffiti in public washrooms should be read not only as the text denoted on the bathroom walls, but on a secondary connotative level as well. What does the message being placed in the washroom represent? Black marker, lipstick, pencil, crayon, pen; all have varying levels of permanency. The content of the message: vulgarity, expression of love, instructions, main stream vs. underground content. McLuhan suggests that the media itself, not the message that it carries, should be the focus of attention in contextualizing and reading signs. Therefore does the message of the Dalai Lama change since it is written on a bathroom stall? Does it become more significant or is it devalued because of its location?


In regard to graffiti, we did not find what we expected to in terms of fast food chains having the most graffiti compared to higher end establishments. What we did find in the washrooms in West Edmonton Mall was a special cleaning agent designed to remove graffiti. This led us on the path to consider the meaning of graffiti in light in reference to consumer culture. Corporations create carefully studied images, and then create strategic atmospheres to promote consumerism and appeal to the consumer. A lot of time, thought, and consideration go into creating a specific corporate culture. McDonalds for instance, carefully went to great lengths to portray a certain corporate image to coincide with its products. Even in the most economically challenged areas of town, the McDonalds establishments were generally clean and well maintained. Graffiti at McDonalds would serve to challenge their ideal image.


The only establishment that did not erase their graffiti was at Remedy Cafe. The graffiti in this place was almost exclusively academic in nature and challenged the status quo; the graffiti, it seems, was written with the intention of getting people to think. Several messages said just that.


“We are all eternal children of the golden Universe”; “Learn to Love yourself. Be Happy”; “Writing is words that stay”. These messages because they are written on the bathroom wall have a completely different context in society due to their location. Any other form of personal expression, such as blogging, writing, or speaking would not get the same emphasis that graffiti written of a bathroom wall would. Graffiti and the bathroom as were previously explained in this blog have connotations with counter culture and a freedom from the gaze of society. People using the washrooms in Remedy are a captive audience – literally. With the bombardment of specific and strategic signs from corporations trying to appeal to consumers, graffiti due to its location is attention grabbing. The medium of the bathroom stall lends the messages written there a certain authenticity that other types of words written on walls, such as advertisements, can’t.


We conclude that graffiti is becoming increasingly difficult to find because corporations are making great efforts to control the image they portray to the public. Graffiti does not serve any purpose for the corporations thus they eliminate it. Remedy Cafe is an exception to the rule, by allowing graffiti the cafe becomes a medium of free thought and expression.



Reference List

Crossley, Nick. 1993. The politics of the gaze: Between Foucault and Merleu-Ponty. Human Studies 16, no. 4 (October 1993): 399-419. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2010).

McLuhan, Marshall. 2003. Understanding Media. Madera: Gingko Press.

Semple, Janet. 1993. Bentham’s Prison: A study of the panopticon penitentiary. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of looking: An introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. Graffiti. April 2, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graffiti. (Accessed April 9, 2010).


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