The Writing on the Wall


by John Tyler Connoley

September 22, 2004


I'm fascinated by bathroom graffiti. Not "Here I sit all broken hearted . . ." or "For a good time call . . ." Those were funny and interesting when I was twelve, but they didn't hold my attention for long. I like bathroom graffiti that tells you something about a community.


I first began reading walls in the mid-'80s, when my family drove cross-country to visit our relatives in Indiana. We lived in Southern California, so we had to drive through nine states to get to Aunt Ruth's house.


One of the striking aspects of the graffiti that summer was how the gang symbols diminished the farther east we drove. I was used to L.A. bathrooms, whose walls were covered with angular words written in permanent black marker. The gangs left little room for other writers, and even if someone else scribbled a couple lines about Lola at 254-, you couldn't read the number because it was covered with an overlapping gang cipher.


In those days, the Midwest was blessedly free of gang activity. You could tell it from the state of the restrooms. Later, when Chicago gangs expanded their territory into the small Indiana town where I went to college, I knew about it before the newspapers started running hysterical articles. I'd seen the writing on the wall at the truck stop where my friends hung out for late night study sessions.


In the summer of '85, the restroom writers in the middle part of the country had two things on their minds (besides Lola, of course): the plight of farmers and truckers, and Jesus. You don't see as much economic graffiti anymore, but in Reagan's America bathroom walls were a popular place for the economic underdogs to vent. I'm not sure why the screeds against trucking companies and pleas for small farmers have disappeared from our rest area walls, but I have some theories.


It seems that a shortage of truck drivers has led to better pay for owner-operators at the same time that Congress has worked to lower the number of hours truckers must drive without a break. This, in turn, has led to higher levels of satisfaction among truckers. Either that, or the widespread availability of methamphetamine at truck stops has resulted in a sense of euphoria among most drivers. (Incidentally, this is also thought to be the reason for the uptick in gang graffiti in Midwestern restrooms.)


As far as the small farmers go, my guess is there just aren't enough of them left to make their presence felt. In the mid-'80s, the sons of family farmers screeing on truck stop walls could overwhelm janitors trying to paint over them. Now those same sons are too busy looking for jobs to spend much time at truck stop cafes.


Religious graffiti has a long tradition, going as far back as Roman Christians furtively scratching fish symbols into walls to help fellow outlaws find their house churches. These days, Christian wall scratchers feel no need to use secret codes, though their ciphers are certainly no less enigmatic to outsiders.


As far as I can tell, modern bathroom proselytization began during the late '70s or early '80s, with the rise of the Moral Majority and the phenomenon of "Rockin'" Rollen Stewart (a.k.a. Rainbow Man) at football games. Following Rollen's lead, young men started writing "John 3:16" on bathroom walls with the hopes of saving souls. Then came "Jesus Saves."


These days, I've started seeing more references to Jesus as Lord or Christ as King. I wonder if this has something to do with the state of our republic: Whether Democrats or Republicans, few of us trust the political powers-that-be anymore. Then again, it might also correlate with the popularity of the Left Behind novels, which focus heavily on images of Christ as a conquering king. Of course, the popularity of those novels probably correlates to the disenchantment with the government, so it's really a chicken-and-egg question.


This leads me to a new kind of bathroom graffiti I don't remember ever seeing before. These days, it's not uncommon for bathroom poets to carry on heated political debates with one another. Of course there's the apropos "Flush Bush!" with a corresponding cartoon of a toilet and a little man in a cowboy hat. Another popular line is "No Hanoi John!"


On a trip to Tucson the other day, I came across a door that was almost entirely political. It contained the usual Bush and Kerry crap (pun intended). However, there were also two Nader-heads who'd left their marks -- one of whom had apparently not read that Jesus saves, and thought Nader would save America. Another scribbler had given up on present reality altogether and was touting Perot. But the most ingenious, I thought, was a fellow who wrote, "Let's have a gay America. Write in Barney Frank."


I don't know that one can draw any firm conclusions from the state of truck stop restrooms, except perhaps about the quality of a truck stop's management. However, from the evidence I've gathered on recent road trips, I'd say partisanship is at an all-time high, as is voter disillusion. I'd also say gang activity is ubiquitous across the entire United States, and Jesus is as popular as ever. I also recently learned that the Book of Mormon contains the real story on Native Americans. Fascinating.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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