When you think of a restaurant, the last thing you likely think about is its bathroom. It’s not exactly an exciting place — that is unless its walls are peppered with hand-drawn art, confessions of love, stickers, graffiti tags, and words of encouragement.
As it turns out, bathroom graffiti in bars and restaurants — also called latrinalia — is more common than you might expect. Bars in the Lower East Side in New York City are known for it, and there’s a growing scene for it at bars and restaurants around Baltimore. While latrinalia is a calling card of the typical dive bar, it’s become an inventive way to add personality to your restaurant’s brand and design.
What is Latrinalia?
Latrinalia or graffiti is writing or drawing without express permission, specifically in a bathroom.
Latrinalia can be written or drawn on bathroom stalls, doors, walls, mirrors, floors, and toilets, or etched in with a sharp object. According to Thomas Lively’s thesis on latrinalia, it has “communicative value, and it is a medium through which individuals voice their innermost thoughts, concerns, and beliefs” because it happens in a completely anonymous place.
Human beings have been drawing and etching on walls for thousands of years. Prehistoric people drew animals on the walls of caves. There was even graffiti in ancient Pompeii, where Romans lamented about everything from daily life to love triangles.
Graffiti has been a part of society since the beginning of time and has, unsurprisingly, been adopted by modern society. While graffiti is still a crime, and we do not recommend defacing private property, it’s sometimes classified as a crime of everyday life. Part of this is because it’s usually nonviolent and happens quite often in highly populated cities. It’s something that people may experience on a daily basis.
There’s also a lot of complexity to graffiti and street art. It can be considered an art form as well as vandalism. According to an article from Fast Company, graffiti-hunting has become a kind of tourism in certain cities, particularly in East London or the Lower East Side and Williamsburg in New York. Graffiti “attracts the type of urban ‘cool’ consumer that marketers call ‘tastemakers’ and that advertisers and retailers so desperately want to reach.”
Like any other type of art, some graffiti may be considered lewd or inappropriate. Some graffiti may even sell for millions of dollars. Of course, the graffiti in your bathroom may not be worth millions, but it can offer an added experience for your patrons to participate in while visiting your restaurant.
Deciding Whether or Not to Embrace Latrinalia
Obviously, graffiti can be a nuisance to some restaurant owners and businesses. And not all restaurateurs are going to welcome graffiti into their establishment. After all, how often do you find fine dining establishments embracing the desecration of their bathroom walls?
But for bars and casual restaurants looking to up their “coolness” factor, latrinalia may be an easy and inexpensive way to incorporate art and a sense of community into their establishment.
Take Sidebar in Baltimore as an example. At Sidebar, latrinalia has become a part of the bar’s experience and charm.
“I’ve worked at Sidebar for seven years, but it’s been a punk bar for about 20, so [latrinalia] has been around for a very long time,” writes Grey Read, manager at Sidebar, over email. “I think graffiti and the punk/dive bar culture go hand in hand. The graffiti itself sets the mood for our customers, they know they can expect loud music and a stiff drink.”
Not only does the bathroom graffiti help elevate the alternative vibe of the bar, but it also adds an excitement factor to an activity that we all have to eventually experience when we go out to drink. For regular patrons, looking at latrinalia can be a nostalgic experience as well. And if you cultivate your latrinalia correctly, it could even turn into a marketing opportunity.
“There’s lots of political messages, band stickers, bathroom confessions... I like looking for bands tags and remembering the shows over the years,” says Read. “And I’ve certainly seen a lot of photoshoots in the bathrooms from drag queens, hip hop artists, and hardcore bands. It’s unique, people remember it, it’s a great backdrop.”
Baltimore is somewhat known for its latrinalia. Other establishments in the area, like Sticky Rice Baltimore, have taken advantage of this tradition by adorning chalkboard walls in their bathrooms. While impermanent, the chalkboard walls still give guests permission to decorate the bathroom with their innermost thoughts -- and the restaurant can easily erase anything they find vulgar or inappropriate, or just start over with a clean slate at the end of the week.
And for every area known for their bathroom graffiti, there are other cities known for their varieties of street art.
Troy Guard, owner and head chef of Mister Tuna in Denver, wanted to take advantage of his establishment’s industrial building as well as the history of street art in the area. Mister Tuna is located in the RiNo district of Denver, a location that is also home to an annual urban art festival - so graffiti has a place in the restaurant as well as its bathrooms.
“We wanted the artwork to flow into the space. We are in an area that has a really great history. We wanted to showcase what it was,” says Beth Windle, Marketing and PR Director of Mister Tuna. “It’s a little bit gritty and elevated and sexy, it definitely has an adult feel. When you go into the bathrooms, it just adds a little reverence and fun.”
Latrinalia doesn’t have to be reserved just for the dive-y punk bars of the world. Your restaurant brand happens anywhere; from service to food to your bathroom stalls.
More and more restaurants, like Mister Tuna, are embracing the edge graffiti can bring to a restaurant's interior.
“It can be polarizing. People either love it or hate it,” says Windle.
4 Ways to Adopt Latrinalia
1. Use it to stand out
Think graffiti only belongs in urban areas? Think again. Stand out in a rural area by adopting graffiti in any part of your restaurant. Street art is a great way to have a unique vibe that stands out against the competition. Bring a mural into the main dining room for a graphic pop of color, or just stick to the basics of latrinalia. If you have multiple restrooms, you could also try adopting a different graffiti “theme” — black and white, monochrome, text-only — in each restroom.
2. Hire a local artist
Support local street artists by hiring one to paint a mural in your bathroom. It may not be the first place they think of when trying to showcase their work, but rotating street art and graffiti make your bathroom completely unique because it becomes a temporary art exhibition. You could even bring in a new artist every few months — or whenever your patrons cover up the mural with their own art. Who knows, maybe this extremely alternative art venue will become the talk of the town.
3. Encourage expression
Take a page out of Sticky Rice Baltimore's book by transforming a wall into a chalkboard. Or, leave a tray with sharpies in each stall above the toilet paper roll and see what happens next.
4. Take it down a notch
If this is all sounding like a little much for your establishment, take the essence of latrinalia and apply it to other areas of service or decor. Your customers want to be able to express themselves and be heard, so allow them to be. Give your customers the freedom to express themselves anonymously with feedback or a pad and paper at the table at the end of a meal.