In researching this article, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. Not just my bathroom, mind you, but a whole host of johns, loos and crappers all across this fair city. It was not an assignment I looked forward to — after all, one can only get so excited about the prospect of hanging out in public restrooms — but hey, a story is a story.
My mission was to find the best restroom graffiti in Asheville. And despite what you might think, this proved no easy task. These days, most downtown businesses keep their bathroom walls fairly tidy, and finding a well-established lavatory soapbox was something of a challenge. Of course, there’s also the unsavory business of snooping around incognito in semi-public restrooms. Even with press credentials, the whole thing seems a little suspect. And there’s no reasonable cover story should you get caught standing around with notebook and pen in hand while trying to decipher the scrawls on outhouse walls. Still, it definitely beats writing about local politics (and you tend to feel less slimy and stinky afterward, too).
My first stop was Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe. Once the de facto home of Asheville’s political and social extremists, these days Malaprop’s is more a destination for the book-loving, open-minded tourist rather than the coffee-addicted radical. Just to get into the blue-and-purple-painted men’s room, one must first claim a key from the retail desk, which must be something of a deterrent for would-be toilet-seat philosophers. To my surprise, there was almost nothing on the walls, other than a few intelligible scribbles and the politically blunt but artistically lacking dictum, “Mumpower is a narcissistic fascist!”
The next stop was Beanstreets Coffeehouse, well known locally as a graffiti writer’s dream stop. Having long ago abandoned any attempts to stop the unchecked posting of opinions, the Beanstreets staff simply elected to make it all easier by tacking up large sheets of butcher’s paper all along the walls. The result is a little like an Iron Age Internet message board, with discernible discussions raging everywhere you look. Of note during my visit were the assorted sociopolitical takes on religion. “Jesus is not a right wing conspiracy read one declaration in thin black ball-point, only to be answered on the opposite wall with (in thick blue marker), “God burnt a Bush to get our attention!”
Of lesser note was another establishment just up the street. The green bathroom walls of the Mellow Mushroom displayed a slightly more artistic bent, with a caricature of an afro-sporting man staring roughly in the direction of the porcelain throne, his thought-bubble eerily proclaiming, “I’m watching you poo.” A less socially conscious mindset seemed to be the rule at the Mushroom, the closest thing to a deeply introspective thought being, “1 death is a tradegy (sic) … a million deaths is a statistic.”
Farther afield, I checked out the more plebeian privies. Perhaps not surprisingly, their intellectual content was limited. As with much low art, the chief theme seemed to be shock and repetition. On the walls of the local Taco Bells, Burger Kings and Subways around town were nearly identical wall-bound artistic statements like “This place smells,” “420” and “Legalize pot” (occasionally augmented by a poorly drawn, five-leaf symbol that bore more resemblance to a waving hand than a marijuana plant). The only thing that changed from one fast-food joint to the next were the phone numbers and descriptions of explicit sexual favors allegedly offered.
In the end, this bog-bound expedition left me feeling kind of sad. After all, bathrooms are supposed to be one of the few remaining places where the constraints of modern courtesy disappear. Where else in society is one allowed to let one rip with full authority? If you can’t be creative with your pants down, why be creative at all? Hey … I kind of like that last one. Maybe I’ll find an inch or two of wall and post it for potty-bound perusers to ponder the next time nature calls.
[Steve Shanafelt writes regularly for Xpress.]