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Latrinalia: Decoding toilet stall scrawlings

What will people say when they have full anonymity and zero accountability?

Content Warning: The following contains references to and depictions of language relating to racism, xenophobia and terrorism.

Absent-minded phone scrolling or much-valued meditation, these are but simple methods of distraction employed when attending to one of life’s necessities.

It should then come as no surprise that during a casual trip to one of our university’s many bathrooms, a moment of daydreaming may lead one to stare at the wall. It is in this instance that we may encounter the occasionally poetic, sometimes humorous, and often blatantly offensive messages and advertisements scattered on the inside walls of toilet stalls. 

From Abercrombie to Holme, Edgeworth David to Wilkinson, various ads, lavatory limericks, and powder room poems occupy small patches of valuable cubicle door real estate. In the past week, Honi has taken a look at the current snapshot of these settings. While far from exhaustive, the following investigation attempts to lay bare the hidden discourses found in the toilets of a number of significant buildings around the Camperdown and Darlington campuses.

Of course this saga has to begin at its epicentre. The lower-ground men’s bathrooms play host to a veritable cavalcade of messages, ads, and slurs including: 

“The use of scab labour is unAustralian” .

“1 BILLION RAISED FROM DONORS BUT STILL THE FILTHIEST UNIVERSITY”.

A sticker with the text “Aussie jobs for Aussie workers” scratched off with “FUCK OFF” written over the top.

A number of Chinese-language ads for a ‘management consulting bootcamp’ and a promotion for a luxury fashion sale also adorn the walls.

An entire cubicle alone is devoted to writings about  the (in)famous ‘Carslaw gloryhole’. Initially patched up but re-established at the expense of a toilet paper dispenser with messages to accompany: 

“tried to unscrew but it’s balted [sic] in.

“glory days are ended 🙁 why ruin harmless pleasures”.

“i suck cock”.

“horny as”, alongside a number of makeshift tallys. 

Education Building

Controversy continues along Manning Road, as the third and fourth-level bathrooms in the Education Building contain writings ranging from political arguments to philosophical platitudes including (from top): 

“Kill your inbred idols, jump into the void”

A socialism conference sticker scratched out with the text “FUCK SOCIALISM” and “Go back to North Korea…” written on top of and beside it.

“You are being domesticated. A life where your choices are being forced to be secondairy [sic]. Live how your movie star wants to. Don’t be DOMESTICATED” followed by a number of fading comments making pun-riddled jokes about the spelling error.

Another cubicle contains, amongst other fade and painted-over writings, a notable reference and quote:

“SUB TO PEWDIEPIE” 

Both a YouTube movement to keep the namesake channel the most subscribed on the website and reference to the grim tragedy of the Christchurch Mosque shootings of March this year.

“Who is John Galt?” 

An oft-stated quote from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, referencing the author’s philosophy of Objectivism; an ode to rational self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism.

Edgeworth David Building/Old Geology Lecture Theatre

The discussion continues at the Edgeworth David building along Parramatta Rd., with the bathrooms underneath the Old Geology lecture theatre displaying a familiar array of political debates and advertising (from top):

A socialism conference sticker, with a scratched-off ‘Aussie jobs’ sticker over the top, and various scribbled-out messages on top of that:

“you guys are pathetic = )”

“I voted Liberal!”

“more financial crisis, more natural disasters, more One Nation seats”

“What’s not to love?”

An ad for a study from the ‘Sydney Human Ethics Committee’ sits below everything.

Fisher Library

The final major destination of our survey is the 3rd-level bathrooms in Fisher. The bathrooms closest to the ground-floor entrance to the library are more-or-less non-controversial, showcasing merely (from top) a graffiti tag, the Star of David with the number “2079” next to it, and the final couplet from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 19:

“Yet do thy worst, old Time! Despite thy wrong,

My love shall in my verse live ever young.”

Remarkably on-brand for a building full of books.

The Rest

The four locations above don’t even cover everywhere we visited! Not pictured is the abundance of graffiti tags in the Wentworth food court, Wilkinson, and Law Building bathrooms; not to mention the perennial ‘please don’t squat over the toilet’ signs in Charles Perkins and Fisher Level 7 bathrooms to name but a few. For those who are still curious, a quick peruse of the criminally-underrated Facebook page ‘USYD Toilet Reviews’ will show that it really is a jungle out there.

So, what’s to learn here?

These spaces unveil a hidden political economy of targeted advertising, ideological debate, and miscellaneous comments. In the case of bathrooms such as those in the Abercrombie building, there are no written messages but rather, stickers for September 20th’s climate strike and Chinese-language ads for luxury fashion sales, restaurants, and tutoring services. This is in contrast to buildings like Carlsaw that present a colourful intersection of faculties. Reflected in the more political commentary, some scribbles remain flippant, while others highlight how hateful comments are platformed. Toilet stall writing is the subversive cousin to the public message boards populating thoroughfares like Eastern Avenue. These private spaces remain beholden to a different view of USyd’s social macrocosm; wars of attrition fought away from public scrutiny. Ads that may stay up in one building for weeks may be torn down and replaced in far shorter time in others.

It would be a little too problematising and far too Orwellian to propose that toilet stall scrawlings are a scourge on our society and ought to be entirely censored or removed. Although it’s impossible to guarantee that such comments are to be taken at face value in any respect, it remains important to establish that egregious faceless statements are not victimless crimes.

That said, this form of relatively-harmless vandalism presents an interesting reality: what will people say when they have full anonymity and zero accountability?

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