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The Grout Society

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Since the 1960s, Sproul Plaza has

served as California’s home for all

things outspoken. Yet its antics

can’t outdo the idle hands of Berkeley

students in Moffitt Library’s fourthfloor

men’s room. On Sproul you may

find yourself betwixt rival protesters in

a Free Palestine rally, but in Moffitt,

you’ll see the same protests in writing,

with choice third-party commentary:

“Here I sit, surrounded by shit, thinking

about the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

So goes one sample of prose from

Berkeley’s true home of free expression:

the university toilet hole. Restroom graffiti, dubbed “latrinalia”

by the learned, has been with us since

the first time our prehistoric ancestors

scribbled a deformed penis on the wall

of a cave and laughed so hard that they

evolved into Homo erectus. It caught

America’s academic eye during the

1950s and grew into a scholastic trend

in the 1970s, as graffiti came into its

own as a medium of artistic expression.

Modern graffiti has always been

characterized by its defiant aesthetic.

The demarcation of public space for

private purposes sticks an anonymous

thumb up the ass of society. This thrill

is taken to its extreme in latrinalia,

which forces itself upon readers who

have no choice but to read or get off the

pot. In this interaction, students find a

peculiar will to free speech that

remains hidden in more open spaces.

Our alma mater is no exception:

Late anthropology legend Alan Dundes

sampled UC Berkeley’s own “shithouse

poetry” in his 1966 paper, “Here I Sit—

A Study of American Latrinalia.” Analyzing

restrooms and the psychology of

cleanliness in American culture, Dundes

saw the public restroom as a bastion

of taboo-breaking expression.

Like his contemporaries, Dundes

noted the lack of latrinalia in women’s

restrooms. His explanation, rooted in

anthropological and Freudian arguments,

linked men’s “pregnancy envy”

to their dominance of “creative feces

metaphors” in the American discourse.

While later studies didn’t mar Dundes’

claims, they did refute the

notion that women are less willing to

tag the walls. “Between Public and Private,”

a recent study by the University

of Sao Paulo, sampled latrinalia across

five countries. The U.S. data showed

female inscriptions outnumbering their

male counterparts, but revealed a difference

in tone: While men marked

their territory with racial, political and

sexually vulgar tagging, women preferred

to make comments in a more

personal and romantic idiom.

To reconcile Dundes’ findings with

recent trends, I conducted a rudimentary

canvass of campus restrooms. My

team’s findings border classic and contemporary.

Male vulgarity is evident in

the volume of phallic drawings and

homophobic or misogynist comments,

and women are more conversational

and discuss sex in a lucid manner.

While men still dominate the numbers,

female participation is on the rise.

Most telling, however, are the nerdfriendly

inscriptions, reminding

patrons they’re in an enclave of higher

education. While major traffic areas are

steeped with the classics, specialized

buildings are likelier to exhibit the disciplines

they house. In this light, Tolman

Hall informs us that “Oedipus is a

Mother Fucker,” LeConte Hall presents

a brief discussion on discrete variables

and the lim(GPA), and Evans Hall

turns up the gem, “My love for you,

Emily, is like X/0!”

Furthermore, “Here I Sit” poems

have been overtaken by expanses of

wall tile, between which students write

puns about grout (“Frosted Flakes …

They’re GRRROUT!”). Sighted in university

restrooms across the country,

this phenomenon is on its way to canonization;

in researching, I even found

a sister trend based on the word “tile.”

The icing on the Berkeley urinal

cake, however, is an inscription of the

integral of 2xdx bounded by 10 and 13.

I’m not sure what’s more gratifying—

the inscription’s accomplished balance

between high-school calculus and highschool

perversion, or the fact that the

author of this function made a point of

writing it down in multiple restrooms.

And rightly so—I may be unsure of

which political collective should command

my soul on Sproul Plaza, but

when I sit down in Barrows Hall and

see “FUCK THE GUY WHO

INVENTED HELL” emblazoned on

the stall door, I can’t help but raise a

fist in solidarity. Then, I wash my

hands. Two times.

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