London's toilet graffiti: piffle or poetry?



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Stephen Emms proves that his obsession with loo-based graffiti is no flash in the pan as he reads the scribbled wisdom in London’s most vandalised lavatory stalls

  • London's toilet graffiti: piffle or poetry?

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  • Art Don’t Pay My Bills,’ exclaimed the spidery scrawl on the hand-dryer of the grimy toilets at the Monkey Chews pub in Chalk Farm, ‘Daddy Does!’ I laughed and, almost without thinking, snapped a picture on my mobile.

    That was the start. I began to notice that London’s inebriated tribes leave a slug trail of graffiti across our divier bars that is at best genius – and at worst bottom-numbing – but is usually worth photographing. The phenomenon is not unique to our times nor to our city (in the US it’s hilariously called ‘Bathroom Art Expression’ and even Parisians are prone to Piaf-like sentiments – ‘La vie est courte. Pas de temps pour les regrets’ reads une toilette in Montmartre); still, London does seem to have the most aphoristic toilet poets (perhaps because we have the most
    enthusiastic drinkers).

    ‘Men are never so serious, thoughtful and intent as when they are at stool,’ declared Jonathan Swift in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Maybe so, but one man’s seriousness is another man’s banality. I mean, which pork-pie-hat-abuser at the Crobar was dull enough to etch ‘Neil Aspinall is the 5th Beatle’? And hands up the numbnuts at Nambucca who whinnied: ‘It’s best to know what you are looking for before you look for it.’ While we’re at it, the private joke is best not shared: ‘If you read this, you’re Devon Malcom (sic)’. Nul points.

    But graffiti – a kind of posting for the offline world – isn’t always dull. Sometimes, it’s enraged (‘Remember, no matter how cute he is, some girl
    somewhere is tired of taking his shit,’ warns one weary lass at the Foundry) or pseudo-philosophical (‘Find yourself then look for others’) or even political, in a weird, beer-soaked way (‘Tony Blair you’ve got worms under your skin’). Sometimes, it’s merely glum, if oddly amusing for the onlooker: one partygoer at the Lock Tavern in Camden Town warns his fellows: ‘It will all end in tears.’

    Not necessarily, it won’t. ‘Jesus saves but he should have invested,’ chuckles one comic. Next door, a girl scribbles a response to the statement ‘My mother made me a lesbian’: ‘If I get her the wool, will she make me one?’

    Some graffiti, however, reaches for a higher plane: poetry. ‘The candle’s burning and the wax ain’t happy’ would probably have pleased Swift in both concept and verbal economy, but the best examples are even simpler: ‘I wouldn’t want to take me home,’ whispers one reveller, a lone voice on a Friday night echoing a million others, while ‘I live in hope/I sleep in Stepney’ seems to evoke, haiku-like, both the silvery aspirations and grey realities of life in the Big Smoke.

    As for my contribution, Somerset Maugham once observed that in 'each shave lies a philosophy'; a quick rework, and – hey presto.

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