Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

The Voices of the Water Closet

Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Photo by Kharli Mandeville
Mirror, mirror on the wall. Photo by Kharli Mandeville

Since human language was first conveyed through little more than a series of grunts and erratic gestures, the species of man has scrawled their marks upon any surface they could, poetically and artistically documenting history and leaving evidence of their existence for generations to come.
Humans have an intrinsic need, consciously or unconsciously, to feel they will be remembered after they are gone. The art of graffiti, though strongly stigmatized by thoughtless vandalism (which is its really annoying distant cousin), is where this inherent need thrives.
Though I’ve never been artistically inclined (seriously, I tried to draw a panda the other day, and it was an epic fail), art — especially street art and graffiti — has always fascinated me.
The idea for this essay was originally visualized as a photo essay of all my favorite bathroom graffiti. In fact, the switch to the light bulb in my journalistic mind was flicked as I used the restroom for just a little too long during my climate change and policy class in the Lattie F. Coor building on the Tempe campus.
Awkward story? Perhaps, but the scrawlings, in diverse sets of penmanship, discussed the existence of God three feet away from my face. I was enthralled with the eloquence of a philosophical debate on the inside of a bathroom stall. Plus, I appreciated the entertainment, because a weathered, six-month old copy of Vogue was nowhere to be found.
I set off swiftly on my adventure into the deep, dark depths of public restroom use and found myself first at Cartel. I mean, I found myself there because I wanted one of those horchata espresso drinks, then I remembered Cartel has great bathroom graffiti and I was on deadline. The drawings, inspirational musings and stickers, stuck to nearly every surrounding surface. They combined to collectively tell a story of our generation and of Tempe culture.  And without the division of gender in this particular restroom, our culture is represented with beautiful well-roundedness.

The throne's door at Cartel.  Photo by Kharli Mandeville The throne's door at Cartel.
Photo by Kharli Mandeville

Existential in a revered room at Cartel.  Photo by Kharli Mandeville Existential in a revered room at Cartel.
Photo by Kharli Mandeville

Local bands, promoters, graffiti writers and various Tempe hipsters hyped on Americanos and armed with sharpies have all found themselves in this private quarter. I learned that nothing is quite as awkward as realizing how long you've suspiciously occupied a restroom.Small-bladdered people prancing around within earshot of the sound of a camera shutter really put a damper on one's graffiti admiration. I also learned that toilets are really high off the ground. My love affair with bathroom graffiti began in the women’s restroom at Long Wongs during a show last year. I have a photo from that night of the sweet graffiti they used to have before they recently began to repaint. (Actually, the photo is of a Thoreau quote I scribbled on the wall after the cute door guy gave me and my friend a paint marker and told us to use it.)We left my guy friend on purse duty out on the patio and headed together into the bathroom, promising the poor guy we’d be back straight away. What we didn’t anticipate is what the photo I have doesn’t show: a succession of very unfortunate events I like to think of as our version of a scene in a “Dumb and Dumber” movie.

Before disaster struck, I wrote what I had to say on the wall just fine. Well, not really. I mixed up “the” with “than,” and I have no excuse other than obviously I was buzzed and got it on the wall and me out of the restroom. Anyway, my also-buzzed friend went to pull the cap off of the marker, pulled a little too hard, and paint flew everywhere. Everywhere. Streaks and puddles of black paint covered the floor, the wall, and the sink.Our eyes widened in shock and our jaws dropped in horror as we each grabbed paper towels and tried to rub the paint off of the floor. No. The paint smeared ever further. Then we tried to clean the sink. No. In desperation, we continued to “clean” and smear as a line of very angry restroom occupants grew just outside the door. We gave up.We took simultaneous deep breaths and opened the door. We acknowledged the girls outside the door, as we looked behind ourselves in exasperation toward our wreckage. We advised the girl next in like to be careful in there, someone spilled paint all over the place. I’m not sure we realized just yet that we were each splattered head to toe in incriminating black smudges.

Anyway, the obvious lesson here is, well, obvious: that girls can still get the cute door guy’s number even when he’s going to have to clean the women’s restroom later. Another photo I have stashed away is of the bathroom at the Fixx, before they closed last year. It has no story, other than oddly enough, it’s been my Facebook cover photo for more than a year and I refuse to change it. But my most favorite bathroom graffiti of all laid within the women’s restrooms of the Coor building on campus.Every stall was full of art, quotes, and those really funny, but really mean things girls like to write to each other for some reason like, “For a good time, call (555) 555-5555,” or “B-tch, he don’t love you, you’re a whore.”  Usually those girls aren’t exactly grammar Nazis, so I’m obviously exaggerating the level of commitment to their craft when I quote using commas and apostrophes.

The Fixx, once home to magic. Photo by Kharli Mandeville The Fixx, once home to magic.
Photo by Kharli Mandeville

Mirror, mirror on . Photo by Kharli Mandeville Mirror, mirror on Long Wongs.
Photo by Kharli Mandeville

I loved those restrooms. As a political science major, most of my classes end up in Coor, so I’m familiar with those stalls more than any others on campus. The art in there was actually decent. A girl used wheat paste to glue her drawing onto one of those stalls, and I’m telling you, it was rad. I think I loved them most because of their implied creators: history, global studies, and political science majors like myself. To me, the story told in this building’s restrooms was one of the creative release (no pun intended here) of students with similar aspirations to my own, likely bogged down in homework and daily stresses, leaving their mark upon a stall they likely frequent regularly.

I use the past tense here, because after spring break and to my dismay, I came back to these stalls, fortresses of creative solitude away from the hustle and weight of academia that they are, and discovered they had been painted over.

I was a crazy person. Running and flipping open each stall in succession as I came to accept what I feared — the University had had enough of our silly bathroom shenanigans and had spring-cleaned away our outlet, our fortress.

I couldn’t understand why. For me, college was never all about growth within the stifling confines of academia. It is about growth in all areas of life. And art, even silly “My Little Pony” cartoon bathroom art, is just as essential to the exercise of the minds that are meant to form creative, progressive solutions to the world’s problems later in life.

I realize I’m being a little dramatic here, but I know I wasn’t the only person who knew that those restrooms showcased the best bathroom art on campus. No other stalls compared.

But all disappointment aside, herein lies the beauty in dark times such as these: The University handed us a clean canvas.

Rest in peace, Coor bathroom graffiti. You are forever in our hearts.

You'll be missed, COOR art.  Photo by Kharli Mandeville You'll be missed, COOR art.
Photo by Kharli Mandeville


Reach the writer at or on Twitter at @kaharli


Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.