You’re at university and need to go to the toilet – which is always an adventure. You open the door, take a look in the mirror and then check out where the cleanest available toilet is. When you have chosen one, you close the door and put the bolt across. Brightly-coloured graffiti of all shapes and sizes awaits you:

I’m planning to have an affair with another boy but I have a boyfriend. Should I tell him?

6986645 Call me!  Answer: Have you tried Porntube?

Poetry transformed into graffiti expressing a whole range of opinions, mockery, jokes, distilled rebelliousness, love declarations, erotic fantasies … A jungle of words, definitely!

This “toilet art,” also known as Latrinalia, has been entertaining (or bothering) us for many years while we sit on the loo, but now, for the first time, some people are starting to take these inscriptions seriously.

Christina Cuonz had to convince her supervisor first that toilet graffiti is of academic value and a suitable topic to perform her sociolinguistics master's research on. In the end her perseverance paid off: she collected more than 200 handwritten texts from university toilets in Norway and the United Kingdom and became one of the first linguistic researchers in this field.

During the interview she admits: “Visiting the men's toilets was not an easy task!” She even had to put some posters on the toilet doors stating: “We are undertaking research here”, so that the men didn’t think that she was there on her own, but that there were several researchers.

ChristinaChristina Cuonz received her Master’s from the University of Lausanne with a Master’s Thesis on Latrinalia in Norway and England. She is now working towards a PhD at University Basel dealing with aesthetic and affective language judgements.

Photo: Christina Cuonz

E&M: Tell us about your research idea. Written text in toilets is not a typical subject for a Master's Thesis, why was it so interesting to you?

Christina Cuonz: I did my Erasmus exchange in Norway and I noticed that the ladies' toilets were literally covered in inscriptions. I loved reading what people had written there and I thought it would make an interesting subject for sociolinguistic research. This manifestation of language is very special: it is forbidden, it’s an act of vandalism and it happens in a context of taboo where sexuality is prominent. In addition, the two genders are separated in different spaces, which make this specific language of all-female and all-male groups very interesting to analyze.

E&M: Why do you think people are writing messages in toilets?

Photo: hurrysickness (CC-NC) 
Toilet exhibition, free entry!

C.C.: One of the conclusions of my investigation is that what is written in public toilets can be an inverted image of the value system of a milieu as some researchers have found before. People express socially unaccepted comments, and they write them in public bathrooms, because it’s possible there. There’s room for the construction of all kinds of identities on toilet walls. Writing in the toilet is something playful, it’s a game.

E&M: What are the frequent topics of these short wall-messages?

C.C: The content of graffiti in public toilets is mainly sexual. However, writing about sexuality and taboo topics in public spaces is not something new! Already in 79 AD people were writing inscriptions in public bathrooms in Pompeii. And those inscriptions talked about homosexual and heterosexual practices, among other things. This is one of the first connections between toilet-writing and sexuality.

On the other hand, there are other topics as well. People also write about love relationships, religion, politics, everyday philosophy, personal subjects…

E&M: So, they express what they cannot in their daily lives…

C.C.: Sometimes, but there are various goals. Toilet inscriptions can be tags on some occasions, such as “I was here” or advertisements: a telephone number with a sexual purpose. But sometimes, in some cubicles, a full conversation can be followed.

So there are people who indeed want to get an answer to a specific question when they write. In this way Latrinalia turns into an entire communication system that can be compared with a blog or a chat in many respects.

The toilet writers who have responded to my questionnaire specify that an effective way to get an answer is by writing in a more provocative style than the others. The more provocative you are, the more answers you get!

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