Writings on the walls

You never know when inspiration will hit.

One afternoon a little more than a year ago, while taking a pee at the University of Michigan, filmmaker Jamie Schenk was intrigued by the inscriptions and drawings adorning the gray bathroom walls.

“I was mesmerized by all the graffiti,” she says. “Women had written about their experiences and emotions regarding life and love. They were responding to each other’s questions about careers, relationships and what to do after you graduate from college. I had seen bathroom graffiti before, but because I was in a very contemplative mood about what to do with my life after college, these women’s words spoke out to me and put me in a trance. That was the hook.”

So Schenk decided to make a documentary about bathroom graffiti. She wanted to find out why people communicate via bathroom walls, and to document some of the most interesting graffiti in the metro area.

So she, along with producer Sarah Cantu and cinematographer Kim C. Simms, put together Urban Scrawls: A Work in Progress, an engaging 30-minute documentary that tells you everything you may not have wanted to know about society’s need to tell all on the bathroom wall.

Since the first outhouse was erected, the documentary suggests, bathroom graffiti has been a part of society. It offers people a chance to be as philosophical, sexist or perverted as they want to be, without any risk because no one knows who is leaving the messages.

“Once one person writes on a bathroom wall, it gives everyone else permission to do it,” says Schenk.

“People have an innate desire to communicate and express their ideas. Bathroom graffiti is a safe venue in which people can do that honestly while assuring their anonymity.”

The filmmakers interviewed a number of metro-Detroit bar and club owners, as well as several university professors and a handwriting analyst, all of whom offered their opinions as to why bathroom graffiti is so enticing. Richard Kokochak, the handwriting analyst, says, “Why we love it so much ... we can become racist, we can become sexist and it has a mystery about it because no one knows who’s leaving it.”

In addition, many of those interviewed consider bathroom graffiti a precursor to the Web and its chat rooms.

Local establishments that make an appearance in Urban Scrawls include Honest?John’s, the Post and the Cass Cafe. (The filmmakers also took bathroom footage in Chicago, at bars such as Lounge Ax and the House of Blues.) Often, the bars were open for business while the crew was filming and interviewing. Conditions were cramped, to say the least, but at least they never had to stand in line.

“We also did a lot of scouting. We wanted to get as much graffiti as we possibly could and in different circumstances. A lot of people know about bathroom graffiti and were happy to tell us places to go. That’s how we found the Old Miami,” recalls Cantu.

While in the Del Rio in Ann Arbor, the crew came across the work of Tony Fink, who has been generating bathroom graffiti art since high school.

“If I have a pen in my pocket and there’s nothing on the walls, that’s the best,” he sighs on-screen. His favorite places to mark up are in unsuspecting places such as hotel lobbies or banks, to shake things up a bit.

“Shark teeth (drawn) on the toilet seat is pretty good,” laughs the former Ann Arbor resident

While Fink hasn’t left his mark at The Post, arguably the most celebrated graffiti shrine in Detroit, plenty of others have.

“It started innocently enough. Pat (the owner) was remodeling the bar and had workers sign their name on the walls. It took off from there,” remembers J.T., manager of the Post. “We paint every couple of years to give them a new chalkboard. In two weeks, it’s all filled up again. I think people enjoy leaving something for posterity, like a time capsule.”

Gretchen Van-Monette is a freelance writer based in Ferndale. E-mail [email protected]
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