An exhibition at New York’s Nicholas Robinson Gallery has piqued my interest in public toilet art. The exhibition by Munich-based artist Florian Süssmayr includes a painting of graffiti on a bathroom wall.
I’ve seen some really beautiful graffiti on toilet walls, and it always provokes the question ‘is it art?’
Toilet graffiti falls into several categories:
Opinion graffiti – such as “Fuck the government” or “Bush lies” or “Stop Japan whaling” – is merely using a public space to provide an opinion. The writer in this case is doing the equivalent of standing on a street corner and yelling. They are sharing a piece (or the whole) of their manifesto with the public. The proclamation can lead to dialogue with written responses and can take up the entire cubicle wall.
Thoughtful graffiti – such “Lewis Carroll speaks to me” or “Yeah, I’m burning” – isn’t designed to provoke written responses, but more of a ‘what the fuck?’ response. These are usually my favourite, as they tend to make me smile and think ‘wow, some people are weird’. Thoughtful graffiti of this kind often has the power of poetry and so can have some of the aesthetic or emotional elements of art.
But I also really like provocative graffiti. I call it provocative not because it’s in any way controversial, but because it usually says something about the ridiculousness of the world. Vault pumping isn’t impossible, merely highly improbably. ‘What is art?’ is a less important question than ‘What is a fart?’
I’ve excluded any mention of ‘tagging’ only because personally I don’t think much of it as an artform. Toby Ganley, in an article in M/C Journal, says “that the design of the tag is not intended to be accessible to those outside of the subculture” but that “the aggressive delivery of it as a text – its placement on a public surface – renders it a public work to some extent” to which a response might be expected. My response to tagging has always been ‘meh’, but then I’m clearly outside of the subculture.