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Bathroom graffiti, meet social media

by Alex in | | | |

The back-to-school rhythm of September has stayed with me in the years since I graduated myself, but it has fresh resonance this September as I’m back in an academic environment. Here at Emily Carr the pace has quickened, the cafeteria is jammed and the anxious faces of first-year students instantly transport me back to my own college days.

But the most exciting part of fall is the prospect of a fresh round of bathroom graffiti. As I have occasionally noted on Twitter, one of my favourite things about working in an art university is the sight of awe-inspiring, delightful and sometimes baffling images and words in my nearest ladies’ room. Here’s a sample:

Lock-eating monster

Hello Kitty

Unicorn

You are a visual poet

As much as I’ve enjoyed the ECUAD bathroom art, I can’t help wondering if the whole phenomenon of bathroom graffiti needs an update for the digital age. Twenty years ago, when I was in college, bathroom graffiti served a functional as well as expressive role. The basement bathrooms of the main campus library were papered with dot-matrix printer paper, which college girls used for everything from bitching about boyfriends, girlfriends and teachers to discussing post-modern French philosophy.

“Anyone know a good therapist in town?” I wrote one day. I checked back a few days later and found a handful of suggestions, including one name that had a couple of enthusiastic seconders. I made my appointment that very week, and spent the next two years in productive weekly sessions that got me past my boy anxieties and into my first long-term relationship.

Students no longer need rely on bathroom walls for this kind of referral: I’m told that students at my own alma mater now use a classifieds board on LiveJournal to exchange info, rides and for sale items.

If the Internet can improve on bathroom graffiti as an information resource, I figure it can amplify the expressive and creative impact, too. The power of bathroom graffiti lies in its spontaneity, its intimacy (think about what you’re doing while you look at it), its honesty and its illicitness. Humour plays a frequent role, too.

But these qualities are also limiting, as I’ve realized in tweeting about the graffiti here at Emily Carr. People want to see the great images I’ve been tweeting about, but bathrooms are limited both by gender and geography. If you’re a guy here in Vancouver, I can sneak you into the ladies’ room once I’ve determined that it’s empty, but if you’re tweeting me from New York or Toronto, you’re out of luck.

And then there’s the monotony. When I’m at work, I almost always use the bathrooms closest to my office, so I have more or less exhausted what its four stalls have to offer (thus the excitement over a new year and a fresh crop of sarcastic, angst-ridden doodlers).

A potential solution to both sets of problems is bathroom-based image sharing. Here’s how it could work:

  • Step 1: Take a picture of the graffiti in a bathroom stall at Emily Carr, and upload it to the web.
  • Step 2: Use a system like QR codes or Stickybits to assign a bar code to the now-online bathroom photo.
  • Step 3: Print out the QR code on a sticker, or take a Stickybit that has the bar code for the bathroom snapshot.
  • Step 4: Visit another bathroom elsewhere in the building — or better yet, elsewhere in the city or world — and slap the QR code or Stickybit onto the wall of a bathroom stall there.

Now, anyone who is peeing in that other bathroom can use a QR Code scanner or the Stickybits application to scan the code that’s been left behind; their smartphone will take them to the online picture of the graffiti from another bathroom.

A system like this could be used to develop a network of displaced bathroom graffiti that moves images from one stall to the other. Finally, the boys can see what’s in the girls’ room, and vice versa. Graffiti that gets erased by diligent custodians will be preserved forever online. Heck, you could get really crazy and save custodians from that work by simply uploading your images to the web in the first place, and using a code sticker rather than a marker to place your heartfelt expressions on a bathroom wall.

What’s the name for this network? “Pee It Forward.”

First posted on September 8,2010

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