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Students feel drawn to express themselves with bathroom graffiti  

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Photo by Allison Cho The girls bathroom is home to positive messages and contemplation.

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Photo by Tristan Rinholm  The boys bathroom is home to scratches and scrawls.

By Allison Cho and Claire Luning

Editor and J-Club Writer

As Payton is one of the brightest high schools in Chicago, some may even expect its bathrooms to be filled with thought-provoking essays and eloquent prose. However, high school has proven to be more than just a place of higher education: in the bathrooms, it is a place of free expression. A recent controversy at Warren Township High School, where “White’s Only” was written on a stall door, has raised concerns about the messages in all bathrooms across the nation and what they say about a school’s student body.

In a study comparing men’s and women’s public bathrooms, psychologist Alfred Kinsey found that 86 percent of the men’s bathroom writing focused on sex and insults. They are also more likely to be “overtly sexual, crude, competitive and aggressive,” according to a study by Pamela Leong from the Department of Sociology at Salem State University. And at Payton, paralleling the outcome of Kinsey’s and Leong’s studies, it is exactly that: classic drawings of male genitalia and numerous profanities etched into the stall doors.

“In our culture we tend to think of graffiti as something that males are more likely to do,” said Ms. Ashley, who has been a part of Payton’s Social Science Department for ten years. “Some theories suggest this may be due to a male’s need to assert their masculinity, boys will be boys. Theories also suggest that males in our culture may be less comfortable talking about emotions, so they may be more open to expressing certain feelings by writing on a wall.”

In conjunction with Ms. Ashley’s statement, a study by Indiana University’s Nicholas Matthews found that men are more focused on reaffirming their presence, such as scrawling their names on the walls. On the other hand, women tend to concentrate on leaving messages with words, such as writing insults.

Despite reflecting the images and stigma surrounding graffiti culture, this only makes up a small portion of the graffiti in the Payton men’s bathrooms. In fact, much of it can only be classified as illegible scratches and random marks, characteristics that can just as easily be attributed to boredom as establishing their presence. However, whether administration is concerned with the men’s graffiti content or not, many students continue to have an optimistic attitude towards it.  

“It’s funny and keeps me from being bored,” said Benjamin Brokemond ‘19.

Christian Nino ‘17 echoed this sentiment, seeing no problem with the sketches and scribbles on the stall doors and walls. “It’s a good advertising technique,” he said, pointing out a way students could use this self-expression to their advantage.

In contrast, the Payton women’s bathrooms are covered with a multitude of phrases scribbled hastily in the margins between the bricks. Neatly written, the women’s graffiti is better organized and more coherent than the men’s. Rather than scratches and doodles, many of the numerous comments are inspirational and more emotional. Messages such as “You’ve got this” and “I believe in you” can be found in the third floor stalls of the East Building. Along with these messages, the women’s restrooms house social commentary on gender and racial equality, which often spark threads with multiple responses from other women.

“It’s the most inspiring and truthful graffiti I have ever seen,” commented Emilia Servellon ‘17. “But it’s still graffiti. It just shows Payton students are intelligent even when doing something usually labeled as bad.”  

According to Leong’s aforementioned study, the dialogue in the women’s bathroom isn’t too surprising. “Findings reveal that while communication patterns tend to be supportive and relationship-focused in women’s bathrooms,” she wrote in her abstract, “the graffiti in men’s bathroom walls are replete with sexual content and insults.”

But despite the differences between the graffiti in the men’s and women’s restrooms*, there are some unifying qualities. Though the reasons prompting people to write on the walls and stall doors may vary, it is ultimately a method for people to express themselves, such as venting about issues in their everyday lives. All students have at one point retired themselves to the restroom to take a moment alone, and during this time, many people are faced with thoughts that may be hard to express.

“Bathroom graffiti is a forum for anonymous, often-inappropriate expression, not unlike an Internet comments section,” wrote Julie Beck in her article “Behind the Writing on the Stalls,” “except with the added bonus of creating something tangible that exists in the real world.”

In other words, graffiti is a way to release thoughts that are often hard to contain. However, from a maintenance perspective, graffiti is a problem that takes time and effort to scrub away. Private self-expression can quickly turn into a chore for the custodial staff.

Ana Paramo ‘17 agreed. “Bathroom graffiti can be cool, but it’s messed up for the people who have to clean it up and makes their job unnecessarily hard,” she said.

Ms. Ashley has a solution to keep everyone happy: putting dry erase boards in the bathrooms. With this idea, students can write out their thoughts in a more tidy and less permanent manner. Many colleges, such as Occidental College, have implemented a similar system for their dormitories, where each dorm room has a small whiteboard on its door for its students to write on.

Ana, on the other hand, suggested another idea. “Maybe we can put Post-Its in the bathrooms,” she proposed. “People can write what they feel and stick it where they want on the walls.”

She continued that this would prevent complications that could arise with dry erase boards, such as the danger of people using permanent markers. Instead, sticky notes are easily removable from the walls and allow students to place them wherever they’d like. This further challenges them to be more innovative with the space given, which is extremely important. After all, encouraging creative methods of self-expression can act as a coping mechanism for the stress high schoolers often feel, especially here at Payton. And as Ms. Ashley simply put it, “It’s cathartic to write what you feel.”
*Due to the relatively short amount of time since their addition, the West Building and the gender neutral restrooms did not have a substantial amount of graffiti that could be surveyed for this article.

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