By Molly Hampton
When we first think of graffiti on the walls of a public restroom, images of “Call for a good time!” or “XXX is a @$*!” tend to come to mind. But what if I told you there was something revolutionary in its solidarity stirring up in spaces as ordinary as bathroom stalls?
While scrolling through the extensive list of classes offered in the College of Charleston Spring 2019 course catalog, I couldn’t help but be drawn to a Women’s and Gender Studies 300-level class titled “Feminist Utopias.” I immediately wrote down the course number, knowing that while I was unsure about this unconventional course title, I needed to sign up for it. As a Women’s and Gender Studies minor, a third-year college student who has found inspiration in classes that offer atypical ways of thinking and with a name like that, how could I not?
The class tackled various issues of reproductive rights, violence and nonviolence, mother-daughter relationships, human faith and sexual expression through the lens of creating a utopian space – a radically better world where all individuals feel validated and protected, making it, inherently, a space where feminist ideals flourish. Like any upper-level college class, a final project lingered at the end of the term. As I tend to do with looming deadlines, I completely put off thinking about what I was going to submit—until, strangely enough, I went down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of a class period. Here, on the third floor of one of the college’s busiest student buildings, in the first bathroom stall on the left, the idea for my final project hit me.
The class discussion that day centered on the concept of “pocket utopias”—a physical space that works to craft a utopia within the confines of a larger dystopian world. This space is constructed through its resistance and refusal to submit itself to the harm projected by the “dystopian” state that is constantly trying to swallow it. Questions floated around the classroom about what a pocket utopia would look like in the setting of our current political climate, which appears by the day to feel like an ever-enclosing dystopia.
As I stood in the stall, I noticed all the graffiti around me. Written in light black pen on the door, right above a poster providing the location of a Sexual Assault Awareness Committee meeting, it read: “Be who you wanna be. Don’t let others control your life! Remember you are loved.” As I stared at this message, I began to wonder: In a world that thrives off of human disconnection and isolation derived, in part, from constructed concepts of power, how is this rallying graffiti crafting a pocket utopia that refuses to submit to those ideals through its encouraging rhetoric?
I began snapping photos of more graffiti, notes and flyers I saw posted within women’s restrooms in several campus buildings. I found that most bathroom graffiti centered on the following: mental health, self-care, campus experiences, confidence reminders, sexual assault survivor support, reproductive hygiene and political discourse centering around Trump-era resistance. I read paragraph-length graffiti seeking advice on how to cope with the trauma of sexual assault, short poll-like questions calling for opinions on different forms of birth control, and pink Post-it Notes on mirrors reminding fellow stall-users to take part in self-care that day.
As I began to tell my friends what I was doing and why I was stopping to photograph every single thing when we went into a bathroom, I was oftentimes met with excited and intense reactions: “Oh, my god!” “I always read the graffiti in that building” or “Wait! I wrote that one.”
These reactions resulted in daily texts from friends with any bathroom writing they found to be a validation of their experiences and identities, and which ultimately became the foundation of my project.
Students use the bathroom walls as a safe space to seek advice, provide words of wisdom and share experiences by creating a utopian sense of solidarity and resistance. There is an ability to remain anonymous, then return to the same stall to read what other anonymous stall-users write in response. The anonymous graffiti rarely turns sour in its exchange, a testimony to what we desire in the creation of our utopian space. Ultimately, I found that bathroom walls are being
used as a permanent platform for expression, experience and solidarity in the form of protection from what students might face around campus, the classroom, or greater community—making it a feminist pocket utopia in its simplest definition.
I suppose I should use the word “permanent” with some uneasiness. What I failed to mention was that only days after deciding this would be my final project, I was met with a major roadblock: the repainting of bathrooms around campus by a cover of thick white paint. I would only assume this was for optic reasons. How is a school supposed to be a professional institution if its walls are covered in scribbles?
However, the context of the bathroom graffiti I witnessed was and is so much more than “scribbles” ruining a polished presentation. Campus bathroom graffiti provides a creative sharing platform for any individual who enters the stall. They can anonymously ask questions about their sexual health, write poetry, draw beautiful images, validate their fellow peers, advocate for sexual assault survivors and express strong concerns about the dystopian state that surrounds them. One does not need anything more than a pencil to contribute to the graffiti or more than a moment to appreciate that of others. Students, strangely enough, are able to achieve one of the main goals of higher education in engaging with bathroom stall graffiti—finding their own voice in an increasingly loud world. So why suppress this accessible platform of expression with white paint?
As I began this project, I frankly thought it would be like any other class assignment. I would spend endless nights in the library, turn it in on time, then honestly never think of it again. But as I worked through how the graffiti provided a pocket utopia; as I heard testimonies to that by fellow students; as I saw people cheer on each other after writing about a tough semester; and as I saw people scribble arrows around sexual assault hotline numbers written on the wall; this project on examining bathroom graffiti with a feminist utopian lens went from being a very strange-sounding thought to a concrete passion. As I sit here writing, I wonder what do we do in life when faced with a cover of white paint?
I believe I found the answer written on a freshly painted stall: We meet the silencing of the thick coat of paint with a fighting stance: “Long Live Bathroom Graffiti.”