Friday, April 9, 2010

Public Bathroom Graffiti and Demographics

This phrase is an explicit demonstration of the notion of interpellation. This concept, constructed by Louis Althusser, suggests that images are present to attract attention from the viewer. These images are not conveyed to just a particular individual or group, but rather are present for the viewing of society; those observing the image must passively internalize their place within society's social construct. The viewer subjectively creates their own meaning that is not necessarily the same as the intended meaning of the producer. In today's capitalist society, advertisers typically exploit the idea of interpellation in order to persuade consumers. The agenda of advertisers is to convince consumers of their own inadequacies; these inadequacies could be fulfilled with the consumption of the product in question.

Interpellation is also clearly employed in bathroom stall graffiti. When one observes graffiti on bathroom walls, there is typically a preconceived notion about what kind of message the image will convey because of the assumed status of the vandal; this is referred to as the "producer function" (Foucault). Images are produced by different individuals, and the subjective meaning behind the image is interpreted differently by everyone; the interpretation is ambiguous, given the diversity of different viewers.

Using population and neighbourhood demographics from the City of Edmonton, we explored various public restrooms in shopping malls and collected photographs of the graffiti; we strictly investigated shopping malls, because of ease of access to washroom facilities. Observing different types of graffiti in different locations throughout the city, we then compiled the information about income surrouding the shopping malls in question. We examined how the city location and average income of the area relates to the type of graffiti found in washrooms.

West Edmonton Mall

Upon entering West Edmonton Mall, we were armed with dollar store hand sanitizer, and one of the high maintenance female blog members was armed with her Bath and Body Works™ hand sanitizer. As we entered the first washroom, at North America’s largest indoor entertainment complex, we were unsure what would catch or eye ahead. Knowing that West Edmonton Mall is not only a shopping destination for area residents, we wondered whether the tourist environment would have an effect on the type of graffiti present. After investigating the average incomes for several surrounding West End neighbourhoods, it was clear to us that the majority of communities directly surrounding WEM had average incomes of $50-69,999. Seemingly, however, these average incomes are not necessarily important to the study of vandalism at West Edmonton Mall; visiting the complex on two separate occasions, we noticed during our weekday trip that the majority patrons were adolescents. These young adults appeared to be using the mall for social gathering rather than for shopping purposes (of course this is based on us observing these people loitering throughout various areas of the mall without shopping bags).

In the men’s washroom, we noticed that the main type of vandalism consisted of eye-catching offensive slogans. This poorly painted over graffiti was located in one of the food courts at the mall. Intuitively, food courts are locations where many young adults socialize (once again, this is speculation based on observation). In this example of vandalism, the viewer is interpellated by a mall rat’s take on vandalism. A mall rat is a young individual who spends a lot of time in shopping malls. This vandalism could have potentially been created by someone who spends a lot of time using the mall for social purposes. It is possible, however, to see the how the different demographics may play a part in the type of graffiti. In this example of graffiti, there are political elements (Obama), as well as clear racist elements. This was in a washroom located away from the food courts, in a more adult-oriented phase of the mall (Phase II); because of the location of this washroom in the mall, we speculate that it is less likely to have been vandalized by younger crowds.

Typically, women’s washrooms at West Edmonton Mall were clean and free of vandalism; however when we did find graffiti, the common theme was love/hate. A clear indicator was the name and phone number of "Cam." Viewers are interpellated by a relatively large stall wall carving, and are promised "a good time" with this "Cam" fellow. We attempted to contact "Cam," on numerous occasions, however he refused to return our telephone calls. In the area of the mall where this was found, we observed many more young adults then older individuals, even on weekends. In this finely written verse, the vandal was explicit in expressing their altruistic message by interpellating the viewer with large block letters. This vandalism was found in Phase I, which is an area of the mall consisting of mainly older adult-type stores.

Londonderry Mall

This mall, in the Northern part of the city has surrounding areas with the average income of households mostly around $50,000-69,999. This is the highest income area in comparison to the other surrounding areas of the malls in the North. With this we would expect the graffiti would be less prominent and less interpellating then the other area. The observations and pictures taken at Londonderry Mall clearly do not support our hypothesis.

We can without a doubt see that this is a large display of graffiti that would easily catch the attention of viewers and draw them in; therefore interpellating them. In this image, it was observed that although this instance of graffiti had an attempt to be cleaned off, it still shows. Similarly to the previous image, it is very large and would attract the viewers' attention. Some individuals may even try to understand the message that is being portrayed or intended by the graffiti 'artist', which could be interpreted differently by every viewer.

Lastly, in this figure, there is another presentation, but this time with a subjective open-ended question. Being as large as it is, it would often entice the viewers attention and quite possibly lead them to ask themselves this very question. This would have a large interpellation effect. From the displays of graffiti on washroom stalls in this mall it is clear that they did not come close to supporting our hypothesis. Is there something about this area that would have altered the results? This is something that could be examined further.

Northgate Mall

In the surrounding area of the Northgate Shopping Mall the income average was evenly distributed between two ranges of values; $40,000-49,999 and $50,000-69,999. Because this area has a higher level of income compared to City Centre/Downtown/Commerce and Kingsway we would expect that there would be less graffiti. In addition, the graffiti that is present, we would expect it to be on a smaller scale with less interpellation.

This is one of the worst instances of graffiti in this mall. As we can see, it is quite a bit smaller then those displays found in Kingsway. This image also does not seem to have as large of an interpellation effect. It doesn't jump out at the viewer or draw them in, in the same way. It also appear that what small amount was present has been partially wiped off.

In this figure, we see even smaller forms of graffiti. This image only contains scratching or engraving in the wall of the washroom stall. This phots shows that there is even less interpellation than seen in the first Northgate photo because it is not readily noticeable. Many people may not even pay attention to this because no strong message is being implemented compared to those graffiti displays that contain words or symbols.

From our observations at Northgate shopping mall we can conclude that it also supports our hypotheses. As the average income level increased, the size of the graffiti and the interpellation effect both decreased in accordance.

Kingsway Mall

The demographics in this area of the City of Edmonton are on average less than $40,000 income per year. According to our hypothesis we should be seeing a higher level of interpellation and more graffiti. Within this lower income surrounding area, the photographs that we took and the displays that we observed support our hypothesis.

The graffiti in the bathrooms of Kingsway Mall used vulgar language and tended to be very large, some covering an entire stall door or wall. In this image we see that a large portion of the door has graffiti covering it. It has been partially wiped off but we can still observe that this would interpellate viewers, simply because of the size. Some individuals may have a feeling of disgust or contempt about the display, but even so, they would be interpellated.

Also, in this depiction of graffiti we see a similar style of graffiti with more underneath it. This also takes up a large portion of the bathroom stall wall grabbing the attention of others who happen to be in that stall. The graffiti display underneath may interpellate viewers because of a possible shared understanding of what was written. The graffiti written over top could potentially be other individuals displaying their dislike with the previous display and their understanding of what the message is. There are many ways to be interpellated by a display of graffiti.

From these observations, we can conclude that those who 'decorated' these stalls wanted outside individuals to notice what they did or what they are trying to say (the enveloped message). This can be considered interpellation in a large degree.

Downtown Malls (Commerce Place, Manulife, Edmonton City Centre)

Similar to the area surrounding Kingsway, the average income is less than $40,000. Once again we would expect to see more graffiti and more interpellation in this area. At the same time we hypothesized that there would be less in the Commerce area. Our first hypothesis was supported, but our second was not. Similar to the area surrounding Kingsway, the average income is less than $40,000. Once again we would expect to see more graffiti and more interpellation in this area. At the same time we hypothesized that there would be less in the Commerce area. Our first hypothesis was supported, but our second was not.

As we can see in this figure there is a larger display of graffiti on washroom stalls. Because of the size of the display it would have a larger interpellation effect, disproving our hypothesis about the graffiti in the commerce area of city centre.

In this image we can see a large amount of destruction and graffiti on the washroom stall. This specific photograph also shows that someone had tried to clean it off (as we can see from the smears found over the graffiti). This piece of graffiti would have a large effect on viewers and the interpellation of those individuals. It really draws I the attention of the individual. In some of the other displays there was also a use of vulgarity which would interpellate viewers even more.

Lastly, this photograph we can see that graffiti is not only present on the walls and doors of the washroom stall but also on the dispensers inside. This would send a multitude of messages that would have the capacity to interpellate viewers. Although, those potential messages do not have to be present for the viewer to be interpellated, it just has to grab the viewer's attention and interrupt them from their present cognitive processes.

Clearly these pictures and display have supported our main hypothesis by showing that in areas of lower income the graffiti is large and interpellating. Even though our second hypothesis was not supported, the photographs from that area still help to confirm the first hypothesis.

Mill Woods Town Centre

Mill Woods comprises much of Southeast Edmonton. The district is widely known as one of Edmonton's multicultural communities. The average income of households lies between $50,000- $69,999. Within the Mill Woods community, the primary destination for shopping is Mill Woods Town Centre. The mall is also very close to an Edmonton Transit Centre. Our first impression was that the mall contains unique and independent merchants, although there are also a number of chain retailers.

There are two locations with public restrooms in the mall, the food court and Zellers. While walking through the food court, we noticed many young people without food or beverages loitering around Arby’s; maybe it is the cool location for the "young" and "hip" to patron. In the men's and women's restrooms, the clear theme was that of race; not necessarily racism, however, in the picture "I love black boys," race was the subject of the interpellation. Another example of race related interpellation was found in the food court. This image says "brn pride;" our hypothesis is that this is an abbreviation for "brown pride."

The vandalism found in the Zellers restrooms at Mill Woods Town Centre was unique and bold. It seemed as though the vandal(s) had an urgency to convey a message either through code or through the use of acronyms. These images seem to only have meaning/significance to the producer and an intended viewer. We are unsure of the meanings, however it is obvious that the person who created this vandalism wanted everyone to see the message; it was located on the outside door of the stall.


Interpellation is actively used and practiced in the creation of restroom graffiti. The common thread throughout the displays is how bold the producer conveys their intended message. We did notice that many public restrooms, such as Southgate, were recently renovated; they therefore lacked any graffiti. There also seems to be an increase in the frequency of bathroom maintenance. This could contribute to a decreased amount of vandalism. The lower income demographics did relate to the type of vandalism found throughout the City of Edmonton however the Londonderry location did contradict our hypothesis. The intended messages and the producers behind the "artwork" are unknown; however the messages are subjective and can be interpreted through social construct. Althusser's theory on the practice of looking and the use of interpellation is still unconsciously used in everyday society to convey messages to audiences.


Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Trans. Ben Brewste. New York: Monthly Review Press.

The City of Edmonton. "Average Household Income by Standard Neighborhood". Statistics Canada 2001 Federal Census.

Nguyen, Cindy. "Interpellation" The University of Chicago: Theories of Media, 2004.

Sturken, Marita and Cartwright, Lisa. "Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture". New York: Oxford Press, 2009.

Blog completed by Maria Tam, Whitney Huckstep and Scott Loder.

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