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Bathroom graffiti goes unnoticed in Stern

Michelle Ma

While students protest to have their voices heard and unravel the veil of silence on campus, one forum exists uncensored: three bathroom stalls in the center of Mills.

The women’s bathroom in Stern Hall packs nine walls worth of graffiti. While bathroom poetry is not uncommon, Mills women take the writings beyond standard of sex jokes and potty humor. In a place that reeks of urine and hand soap, the students created an open forum for social and inter-campus arguments.

The dialogue began with only a few conversations such as a drawing of a person smoking with “Smoke Kills” written above it and an argument over racism.

Open the stall door farthest from the bathroom entrance and the observer will find one-fourth of it covered by the debate on smoker rights and public health that the drawing spawned.

The writing’s content alternated as much as their styles, curled statements following scratched letters like condemnation of smoking preceded accusations that the world scapegoats smokers.

One responder said that though smoking is hazardous and “looked down upon,” the smokers should not be condemned like the addiction. “Smokers need support and understanding, not snide comments and dirty stares,” the scribbling read.

Another writer declared a smoker’s right to choose for him or herself, causing someone else to mention that the risks of second-hand smoke outweigh the right to choose. “We shouldn’t look down on smoking, but it’s not like it only [affects] the smoker,” it read.

The dialogue on racism tread a similar path. The discussion could have been pulled from Mills classroom discussion on race, but the nameless responses provided an anonymous sphere in which to discuss racial impact.

“Racism implies power (Institutional),” one piece of graffiti read. “People of color do not have institutional power, but people of color have hate or rather [resentment],” one tag said.

Responses included a bulleted list of ways “privileged” people can form better relations with minority races as well as counterpoints. “Racism is defined as hatred/bias due to race. Power may be implied, but it does not make the definition of a racist.”

Some scholars on the subject of latrinalia, or bathroom graffiti, proposed that discussion-oriented writings like the ones in Stern Hall are gender based.

In her Internet essay on the bathroom graffiti, scholar Shelly Brown proposed that men graffiti stalls to boast or put down other men, while women use similar writings as a way to explore relationships. She also said women’s graffiti tend to call others to action with advice, inspiration or humor.

Mills Professor of Films Studies Ken Burke agreed, saying that the intellectual content in the women’s restroom is an isolated phenomenon on campus.

“The men’s room does not get such poetic responses,” he said. “In roughly 60 years of experience, I’ve had no intellectual discussion in a public restroom.”

While the graffiti forum began as a few isolated scribbles, the stalls were nearly filled with pencil, Magic Marker and all colors of ink in a matter of months.

Sophomore Lillian Gonzalez provided her opinion of why the graffiti added up so quickly. “Reading everything makes you want to write on the wall,” she said.

Matt Schneider, 26, a San Francisco resident whose blog is about bathroom graffiti, reported a similar urge after he began to analyze the messages left on a chalkboard in the men’s bathroom where he lived.

“I have even considered writing offensive things that I don’t necessarily agree with just to see how people respond in different contexts – across genders or even in different buildings,” he said.

While some students and scholars believe that bathroom graffiti is worth studying, Mills junior Jessica Lynn Dewey-Hoffman considers the writings absurd regardless of the content.

“How insane is it that people think, hmmm, I’ll write here while I’m on the John?” she asked.

Graffiti is nothing new on campus. Senior Paint Night sanctions painting pictures and phrases relating to the graduating class, but the act is only allowed in certain predetermined spots on campus. According to the Mills Student Handbook, the Mills community is also allowed to write on posters and fliers as long as the person signs their name to the comment.

Writing in bathroom stalls, however, is still prohibited on campus, so why is the Stern graffiti so prolific when the writing is painted over in the other bathrooms?
Professor Burke says that the graffiti at Stern is less likely to be reported since not many will see it. “We’re not a classroom building so much anymore, so there’s only a few [people] here.”

According to Paul Richards, Mills’ director of facilities, no one has put in a work order for the graffiti to be cleaned up and he had not heard of the problem.

For now, a warning on the third bathroom stall has yet to come true: “White paint[:] silencing Mills since” with 2006 crossed out and the year 1985 added in its place.

Time will tell if the students voices will remain on the stalls for years to come or if students will take the responses beyond the latrine.

As one writing said, “I hope bathroom walls are not the limits of our voices.”