Bathroom graffiti: like an online conversation scrawled on a wall

by Toby Manhire / 04 September, 2013
In China, finds one intrepid researcher, the nature of the toilet etchings is different to the US.
Chinese toilet advice.

Bathroom graffiti has a good bit in common with online conversations.

“As a mode of communication, it shares a number of key traits, namely anonymity and low barriers to participation,” writes Warner Brown at the website TeaLeafNation (and reposted at The Atlantic).


American graffiti is often no more than an isolated statement or squiggle, but in its highest form, it becomes a collective exercise that echoes an online message board. The first scrawled foul joke or lewd cartoon inspires someone to add a comment or edit to the original piece, which then draws further responses. The result is a ‘thread’ of contributions distinguishable only by writing utensil and handwriting.

Having stumbled on a revolutionary anti-establishment graffito in a bus station lavatory in China, Brown decided to visit hundreds of toilets to see if a similar theme recurred. In short: not really.

What he chiefly encountered in his fieldwork (“the click of my cameraphone has raised a few eyebrows among patrons and cleaning staff”) was a marketplace.

Most graffiti proposed some kind of exchange, be it commercial, educational, sexual, or otherwise. Unlike in the US, where the wall is an interaction unto itself, bathroom graffiti in China is the first step towards some further interaction that will benefit both the reader and author,” he writes. “Chinese bus station bathroom graffiti is best viewed as an extension of China’s broader informal advertising subculture, in which bare-bones messages hawking services with mobile numbers are scrawled, pasted, and spray-painted onto public spaces all over the country.

China Digital Times adds:

Global Times reported last week that Guangdong plans to introduce 100 yuan fines next month for a different kind of bathroom spraying, though it has not revealed how this will be enforced. Last year, Beijing introduced a limit of two flies per stall.

Meanwhile the walls of Moscow are being covered in graffiti, according to Kommersant, and the authorities are all for it – although good luck to you if you’re scrawling something anti-establishment.

And Buzzfeed is on hand, as ever, with a list: the 20 most truthful pieces of bathroom graffiti.


See also: NZ Police street-art ads go global
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