FYI: What is latrinalia?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

The term was devised by an American academic to refer to the graffiti found on toilet walls. Since biblical days, writing on a wall has been a way of making people sit up and pay attention. In 1635, Rembrandt painted a scene from the Book of Daniel, capturing a prophetic moment in ancient Babylonian history. King Belshazzar was tucking into a grand feast after having pillaged the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, when a disembodied finger appeared out of nowhere and wrote a message on the palace wall, spelling the kingdom's doom for his blasphemy against the Almighty.

Other ancient forms of graffiti can be found amid the remains of Pompeii, Italy (where the term originated). One inscription found in the preserved city warned of Celadus the Thracier, who 'made the girls moan'.

In 1992, a well-meaning youth group called Eclaireurs de France used their graffiti-scrubbing equipment to erase ancient paintings in the Meyrieres Cave in France, earning them the Ig Nobel Prize in archaeology.

When done without the property owner's consent, grafitti is considered vandalism. Nevertheless, different schools of graffiti styles and methodology have sprung up and spread all over the world. On the street, most urban youths can differentiate between a 'tag', a 'throw-up' and a 'piece'.

We've all stumbled across a graffito on a toilet wall at the local pub; we might even have contributed a verse or two to what has been affectionately known as 's**thouse poetry'. In fact, this form of graffiti had been catalogued and studied long before the invention of the spray can.

Between 1904 and 1914, Austrian folklorist F.S. Krauss published Anthropopytheia as 10 yearbooks. Within these volumes, lavatory graffiti is documented and discussed from a folklore point of view.

On a trip through North America in 1928, American etymologist A.W. Read's curiosity was aroused by the extensive graffiti he found in a number of public restrooms. Inspired by the content and style, Read compiled a glossary titled Lexical Evidence from Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, in the hope of contributing to the study of colloquial linguistics.

The term 'latrinalia' was later coined by Professor Alan Dundes of the University of California, Berkeley, in a 1966 article, 'Here I Sit - A Study of American Latrinalia', in which he hailed the restroom as a bastion of uninhibited expression.

More recently, in 2004, Renata Plaza Teixeira, a social anthropologist from Sao Paulo, Brazil, documented words and images from several countries in her work on grafitos de banheiro. It, in turn, has furthered the study of latrinalia in Brazil.

While most academics seem to find it a fascinating study of social psyche and lexicon, there are those who write latrinalia off as drivel, rejecting it as a valid form of graffiti art. For those naysayers, American artist Mark Ferem has these words, which ring particularly true in a city such as Hong Kong: 'We now occupy a space that is infiltrated by global multimedia carpet bombing, where our mental environment is in the last death throes of private space. The bathroom has ... become a sanctuary or bomb shelter which takes the name restroom to a whole other level.'