Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This post contains some objectionable language. That’s the nature of the beast when discussing graffiti, but still, keep that in mind.

Perhaps I have too much free time, but I’m starting to realize that senseless graffiti is truly fascinating. However, I take heart in the fact that I’m not alone (for my Linguistics in US Society class, one paper option was to write about bathroom graffiti on campus). I’ve written two other posts about it already (here and here), and the more I look around, the more interesting examples I see. However, last week, I saw something that really, truly threw me.

I had the occasion to be at a moderately sized Lutheran Church helping with an event, and, as humans tend to do, I used the restroom. No place is sacred to the bathroom graffiti artists, as there was one etching on the inside of the stall door, the word “EMINEM!”.

What struck me was that, well, this was incredibly tame for stall door graffiti. On campus, generally there’s never an etching without at least one swear word, and generally, the subject matter is either political (F— LIBERALS!), sexual (YOU F— MEN!) or Drug related (F—ING LEGALIZE IT!). However, “Eminem”, the name of a popular American rap artist, is really none of those.

That led me to search for a link. On campus, the bathroom walls seem to be a sounding board for what people are thinking, but forbidden to say in public. So, you get all sorts of confessions (“I had sex with a man last night” in a men’s room), random uses of profanity (“F— you s—headed f—ing s—s!), unpopular opinions (any variety of hate speech and insults), political extremism (“Liberals should all go die!”), and talk of other societally forbidden subjects (“smoke the pot!”).

Then, it occurred to me, to a young, churchgoing boy, the mere thought of liking and listening to Eminem is an unpopular thought, and a subtle rebellion. Really, the boy carving “Eminem” in a church wall is no different than the college student carving “Smoke pot!” in the library study area, it’s just a different forbidden fruit.

My mind then jumped back to a recent retreat I went to, hosted at a YMCA camp. There, on the bottom of the bunk bed, was a series of scribbled graffiti, ranging from “Alex + Sarah = Luv!” to (really) “I just pooped on the bed”. Once again, forbidden subjects of the age group that might be prone to staying there.

So, I’m not a psychologist, but I think there’s a pretty obvious pattern, where, given a certain age group, the graffiti will pertain to the subjects which are forbidden in open discussion.

The next step, of course, is to find new age groups. So, if you’re acquainted with the graffiti in a day care center, corporate office, or retirement home, I’m interested to hear about it. I just wonder if, in the bathroom in the Linguistics department at UC Berkeley, there’s a hastily written note carved into the door, saying “Chomsky is right!”


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