In Praise of Urinal Lit

February 15, 2019 | 4 min read

The most confessional thing I’ve ever read wasn’t in someone’s diary, or journal, or their posthumously collected letters. Such writing always has an audience in mind, that audience being the future biographers that will excavate one’s inane reflections and elevate them to their proper place in the English Canon. I know this because I’m guilty as charged: I keep a journal every time I travel, and the writing tends to be both overly grand and protectively dispassionate. No, the most confessional thing I’ve ever read was in plain sight, for all the world to see…or at least all the world brave enough to enter the New Orleans bathroom during Mardi Gras where it was written. Above one urinal, someone had scrawled the message, “Toy Story 2 was ok…”

Toy Story 2 is one of the most highly rated movies in Rotten Tomatoes history. Yet someone had the audacity—and the need—to express this rogue dissenting opinion. If this person had claimed that Toy Story 2 was merely “ok” on social media, he would’ve been the subject of ridicule and disbelief. But to write these words on a bathroom wall and feel the relief of urination and proclamation at the same time—that is to really live. I have been a student of urinal lit ever since and believe it is the most underrated form of modern expression. It turns out that our most private thoughts are safest in public.

What qualifies as urinal lit? Well, technically it’s anything that someone is brave enough to scribble on a bathroom wall. I’ll admit, most of these scribbles are nonsense, as alcohol fuels a tremendous amount of urinal lit (though the same could be said, I suppose, for lit lit). Urinal lit often has a sense of urgency, as well as a clarity typically reserved for a form like haiku. The best urinal lit uses an economy of language that makes Raymond Carver seem positively prolix. The urgency of urinal lit comes from the necessary brevity of scrawling a message in a public place without being seen. Given the amount of graffiti in bar bathrooms, I’m amazed I’ve never actually caught anyone in the act. But after careful study and covert iPhone documentation (taking pictures in the bathroom being frowned upon for obvious reasons), I have unearthed several styles worthy of celebration:

Unsolicited Advice

The advice written on bathroom walls tends to read like the disgruntled work of a down-and-out fortune cookie scribe. It’s advice that sounds hard won, learned at the school of hard knocks (or perhaps hard liquor). These writers know of what they speak. Take, for example, the sage offering written above a urinal in the Cambridge Brewing Company that said, “Follow your heart, stay in school, don’t smoke rocks on weekdays.” Or the simple message that appeared above the adjacent urinal, “Be honest. Don’t be an asshole.” I know not what caused this near perfect maxim to appear on the wall, but I know that if I followed this creed and only this creed, I would lead a life well-lived.

My favorite piece of advice, however, was a message that no one likes to hear, but that we’ve all had to heed at one time or another: “Go home. You’re drunk.”

Bathroom Humor

In an era when everyone wants credit for every idea, the willingness of restroom authors to be anonymous is heartwarming. Although sometimes it’s clear why this anonymity is preferred. Urinal lit tends to skew crass, the bathroom, after all, being a pretty appropriate place for bathroom humor. But there are two kinds of crass: the kind that I would be embarrassed to include here, and the kind that is surprisingly novel. A prime example of the latter is a dictum I discovered in a bathroom stall in a Vermont bar: “Poop as loud as your anus will let you.” I found this message to be both gross and strangely inspirational. It made me feel ashamed of all the times I felt shame in a bathroom. Later, I went into the same bar’s other bathroom stall and found this very same message written again. Someone in Vermont is spreading the gospel of pooping pride.

Quasi-Profound Non-Sequiturs

As someone who majored in philosophy, I appreciate any and all opportunities for reflection. I just don’t typically expect those opportunities to come at 1:00 a.m in the dingy bathroom of a bar. But when someone writes, “What are we doing here?” at eye level, it tends to provoke an existential moment.

Other patrons at various bars in Portland, Maine have written such inexplicable yet indispensable messages as, “The spice must flow,” and “Dead rabbits live forever.” I also once encountered the phrase, “I will not write on the walls,” written 10 times in a row on the wall. Then there was the highly unlikely but nonetheless exhilarating claim I discovered in New Orleans, compete with an arrow pointing down, “Bukowski pissed here.” Such statements can make relieving yourself in a bar feel like an opportunity to discover the sacred in all its forms.

Interplay

Interplay between multiple authors is an exciting form of the urinal lit genre. This kind of layering is reminiscent of Buddhist koan study, in which generations of enlightened masters often leave behind pithy commentary for further dissection. In urinal lit interplay, the commentary may not be enlightened, but it certainly is pithy. The classic sign of interplay is different colored pen strokes. For example, in thick black marker, in the space where a mirror would typically go, I once saw the message, “I love no mirror and getting over stuff,” to which another scribe, using a thinner black marker, responded, “Get over it dude!”

Interplay can often devolve into a kind of debate. I once encountered the rather unremarkable statement, “Fuck the police,” with a remarkably polite series of responses.

“No thanks!” someone chimed in.

“Yes plz!” responded a third party.

Perhaps it’s this very spirit of open dialogue that I appreciate most about urinal lit. The Internet, once seen as a bastion for free-spirited exchange, has become a space where divisions are only exacerbated and the most offensive wheel gets the oil. But there is no tolerance for trolling in the toilet. It warms my heart to know that there is still a place where people not only feel comfortable expressing their true feelings, but that those true feelings are often so sweet. As one dude so memorably expressed on the wall of a bar in Boston, “Love ya motha, ya only get one.”

Ernest Hemingway advised, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Above urinals all across this great nation, his encouragement has found its ideal, if not idyllic, medium. It is commonly expressed that we should not judge a book by its cover. Similarly, I would add, we should not judge literature by its location.

Image Credit: Gabor Monori.

is a writer and teacher living in Cambridge, MA. He enjoys reading in bars but not writing on them. You can follow him on Twitter @atz840.

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