Graffiti adorns campus bathrooms, viewed as vandalism, expression

Brad Ellingson

Doors swing open and students trickle in and out with the clockwork frequency of running water. But some things remain in the hallowed stalls of University bathrooms after the traffic subsides.

“Express yourself” and “I hate my period” exist inches apart on a women’s bathroom stall in the Art Building.

In most any stall, you can pick up a telephone number, trash an ex-lover or venerate your mother. Or find a handful of other people doing the same thing.

For some, bathroom wall graffiti is a forum for public expression in buildings across campus. But others work hard to prevent it.

“It’s always been with us,” said Andrea Berlin, a classical and Near Eastern studies professor.

It even dates back to the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

“In Pompeii people used walls to write election notices, and they also wrote really hilarious dirty messages to each other,” Berlin said.

She said modern graffiti, like the walls of Pompeii, is a democratic means of expression.

The Art Building provides a more friendly venue for bathroom stall scrawling, as it provides chalkboards and chalk in the men’s and women’s bathrooms for students to express themselves.

“There’s always going to be the one that wants to write it where he’s not allowed to do it and that’s always going to happen,” said graduate student Melisa Riviere, who has researched graffiti.

“What you can do is channel it and try to bring something positive from that public expression,” she said.

Sometimes the walls provide not just a forum for individual expression but also a way for a normally unrelated populace to anonymously communicate. Several references to the Sept. 11 attacks have been cropping up in bathrooms University-wide.

Though encouraged in the Art Building, bathroom artistry is frowned upon at most other locations.

Matt Leininger, a Facilities Management painter, said he figures most students do it just because they think its cool to see their John Hancock, on the bathroom wall.

But its still defacing.

“When it’s on our building, it’s vandalism,” he said.

Dinkytown businesses have graffiti problems of their own. Purple Onion employees erase bathroom graffiti everyday.

“They’re the same lame taggers,” said employee Jim Beyers. “They have no talent.”

Leininger said he spends around eight hours per week to remove graffiti in West Bank buildings.

And removing graffiti doesn’t just take time. It also costs money.

Facilities Management officials said $10,594 was spent for graffiti removal on the West Bank in the fiscal year 2000. Of that money, $9,867 accounted for labor costs – the rest for materials.

Riviere said most people assume graffiti is usually gang-related, but 90 percent of it is not. She said people tend to overreact to graffiti and need to look deeper before getting police involved.