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Behind the hidden art of Baltimore's bathroom graffiti

At The Crown in Station North, the main attraction is the music — whether it be a live performance or a DJ spinning. But head to the upstairs bathrooms and you’re bound to find another art form worth taking in.

The men’s and women’s restrooms are covered in graffiti tags, stickers, and quippy messages, including stories detailing awkward sexual encounters, words of encouragement (“You are beautiful”), somber sentiments (“Sometimes it’s love; Sometimes it’s a moment”), humorous exchanges (“I have phone…. Nobody texts me… Forever alone.” “What’s your #, boo? I’ll text you”), and of course, a variety of drawings, including cartoonish sketches of human genitalia.

And many of Baltimore’s frequented bars and entertainment venues have restrooms with similar content — the creative, edgy, humorous, thought-provoking and, sometimes, offensive forms of bathroom graffiti that allow us to crawl into the minds of our fellow Baltimoreans.

“Bathrooms are like this pseudo-private space in a very seemingly public space, and there's kind of an anonymity that is allowed in a bathroom,” said Ayaka Takao, an artist and bartender at The Crown. “For some reason, the bathroom feels like a detached space from the venue,” which makes people believe they can write whatever they want, she added.

Writings or paintings on walls and public surfaces date back to ancient civilizations, including the Romans and Mayans, according to Melissa Meade, a visiting assistant professor of communications studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia. But as technology has advanced, communication through images on walls is now largely seen as an outdated mode of expression.

But graffiti in its many forms, particularly those in the confines of a bathroom, has endured, filling “an important need to express private thoughts, especially when people can be persecuted for their thoughts,” Meade said. It’s been documented in literature as early as the 1800s, according to a study by the late Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California-Berkely, who dubbed bathroom graffiti “latrinalia” in 1966.

More recently, latrinalia has been a component of punk and pop culture. Shortly before his death in 1990, artist Keith Haring, known for addressing themes of homosexuality and AIDS in his work, created his risque mural “Once Upon a Time” in the second-floor men’s restroom in what is now New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. (Considering that many of Haring’s paintings have sold for millions of dollars, the mural — an expression of Haring’s gay sexuality — might have made The Center’s bathroom one of the most expensive and valuable to date).

And in 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York plopped a recreated restroom in the middle of its museum in an attempt to mimic the feel of the bathrooms at the New York club CBGB in the 1970s, considered one of the birthplaces of punk and known for being riddled with nostalgic memories and the names of bands who performed. The exhibit was met with mixed reviews, with some stating that the exhibit couldn’t capture the glory or the filth of the club’s toilets.

But some would argue that latrinalia, taking place in a space where humans defecate and expel waste, is not supposed to be clean.

British writer Reginald Reynolds wrote that latrinalia was the “the measure of our social fixations,” which went on to inspire various studies, much of them comparing the bathroom graffiti men and women produced. Dundes, who, too, explored such theories, summed up the allure of latrinalia by stating that bathrooms — private or public — are “in many ways a place of comparative freedom from the normal restraints imposed by the adult world” and one of the few places in American culture where “dirt” may be displayed and discussed.

And while many venues in Baltimore embrace latrinalia, allowing graffiti to remain on bathroom walls, others have fought to police it or reclaim their restroom walls entirely.

Craig Boarman, the co-owner of Ottobar, said the local Charles Village concert venue and bar began its battle with latrinalia soon after its opening in 2001. Ottobar’s two upstairs restrooms, which largely function as unisex, are covered in layers of bright and bold graffiti tags, scribbles and indistinguishable messages, making a colorful and edgy collage.

“I fought it for years,” said Boarman, who has repeatedly tried to paint over the graffiti that accumulated on the stalls. “I always tried to have a nice bathroom. We lost the battle. ... At some point, we were like, ‘We [give] up.’ I’m kind of coming to grips with it, but I’ve always hated it.”

Visitors, however, tried to persuade the co-owner over the years to keep the graffiti, noting its cool factor. Ottobar’s bathroom attracted Toilography, a photography blog dedicated to taking pictures of toilets, and inspired a since-deactivated Flickr account that encouraged people to take selfies in the bar’s restrooms.

At one point, the owners coated the walls with stucco, a textured plaster, to deter the anonymous bathroom vandals, but they’d still find a way — Boarman’s still not sure how. The venue checks the bags of incoming patrons, Boarman said, and he insists that no one would be allowed to enter with spray cans of any sort.

Around six years ago, the bar repainted its upstairs bathroom stalls for the last time — one red, and one blue — and then, Boarman gave up.

But with a pending sale of the venue to new owners, the fate of Ottobar’s infamous bathroom is unknown. “It depends on whatever the new owners want to do. … If I came into the new place, I know I would probably want to paint the walls,” Boarman said.

Other places, like Sticky Rice Baltimore in Fells Point, Riverside Italian restaurant Hersh’s, and downtown punk bar Sidebar, have welcomed their latrinalia.

Sidebar’s two stalls display an array of anti-Trump and anti-ICE messages, queer and feminist graffiti, and band stickers — fitting since the bar focuses on DIY-bands and music, according to manager Grey Read.

“I certainly have spent a lot of time checking out the graffiti and it's an interesting timeline. I can pinpoint certain shows where a piece appeared, or sometimes I find memorials for musicians and friends no longer with us,” Read wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

“It’s a part of the look of the bar. We really like it,” said Read. He added that graffiti is only covered up if messaging is mean-spirited, gossip or targeting an individual. “People generally understand the flow of the graffiti,” he said.

Sticky Rice Baltimore and Hersh’s have incorporated blackboard paint on the walls of their restrooms, which allows customers to scrawl messages freely using chalk that is often provided.

The results have been a smorgasbord of messages — some congratulatory well wishes to couples from bridal parties; platitudes like “love will save the day;” messages gushing about restaurant fare; back-and-forth conversations; political messages, many of which have urged people to vote; and witty comments (Hersh’s co-owner Stephanie Hershkovitz said her favorite line so far read: “Anybody can piss on the floor. Be a hero. S--- on the ceiling.”).

“It’s funny to read when you’re sitting on the toilet,” Hershkovitz said.

Still, latrinalia poses challenges for spaces that strive to be inclusive. At Hersh’s, some messages have to be erased because the restaurant is frequented by families and children, and some rebellious customers still find ways to write on wood paneling or other parts of the bathroom not intended to be written on, said Hershkovitz.

The bathrooms at the Crown typically feature uplifting and positive reinforcements for those who identify as queer or transgender (“The revolution will be queer!”), but not all the art has been positive.

“Sometimes people have the audacity to write really transphobic messages, which is part of the graffiti that really scares me sometimes,” she said, recalling a time when a woman asked to borrow her pen, only to go into the women’s restroom to cross out trans-positive graffiti, attempting to replace it in language that she identifies as diminishing and “gender-centralizing.”

But latrinalia remains a signature part of The Crown. Takao recalled that the venue’s last paint job, done a year-and-a-half ago due to necessary repairs and maintenance, sparked disappointment and anger from patrons because it covered the old graffiti. At Ottobar, Boarman has considered that fans of the latinalia might react similarly post-sale. Even he is starting to get used to the restroom’s art, he said.

Boarman said he finally understands the allure after a recent visit to a bar riddled with graffiti in Vienna, Austria, where latrinalia seemed integral to and reflective of the culture.

Before, he considered Ottobar’s bathroom graffiti “one big mess.” Now, he says, “it’s very rock ’n’ roll.”

Baltimore Sun reporter John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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