In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.
“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech,” as a patriotic poem by Charles Province has it. That presumption is a point of pride among service members, who defend civilian rights and privileges they’re often not afforded themselves. You don’t have the right to foment a strike in the military. You don’t have the right to a trial with a jury of your peers. You can’t sue the military. You don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. There is no such thing as freedom of speech. But self-expression is like hydraulics: plugging one hole only builds more pressure somewhere else. In my own experience as an infantryman in Iraq, the only place where the stress of combat found unfettered freedom of expression was on the walls of the latrine.
You begin to notice it as soon as you hit the staging area in Kuwait. At places like Camp Buehring, a crossroads where battalions came and went on their way to different operating areas in Iraq, American troops are sheltered under the anonymity of massive logistical bureaucracies. A port-a-potty next to a chow hall could be used by any number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines passing through. Unlike a permanent duty station, where bathrooms are assigned to specific companies and any defacement is easily traceable, there simply wasn’t any way to catch someone scrawling on the walls of a well-trafficked latrine. The situation wasn’t very different once one finally got to Iraq, where the bases were just as large and sprawling, and combat outposts were constructed in the half-destroyed hovels of what had been private residences. In the former, the anonymity was conducive to getting away with latrine graffiti; in the latter, no one cared if you wrote on some walls.
Superficially at least, the latrinalia resembled a YouTube comments section. There were the wild accusations of servicemen with vague vendettas: “Cpt. Franklin is a pussy and doesn’t give a shit about you.” There were sweeping political pronouncements: “Kill all politicians.” Misattributed appeals to authority in defense of ill-defined ideologies: “Only the dead have seen the end of war. —Homer.” And of course, there was the passionate, ongoing discourse between the “FTA,” or “Fuck the Army,” crowd, and those who rushed to the loyal defense of their beloved institution: “You’re a pussy.”
But not all latrinalia was so aggressive. Much of it was touching, as in the case of single-line announcements of hometown pride: “Dade County, 305.” Bible verses weren’t rare. Nor were sad countdowns until homecoming: “40 days left! Almost home!” There were a few crude sketches of penises and many, many more sketches of female anatomy—caricatures of women with absurdly large breasts and genitalia, almost like amateur studies of the Venus of Willendorf. The latrine walls were community billboards, radically free spaces of debate and dissertation beyond the reach of the normally intrusive chain of command. During the span of a bowel movement one could tap into a makeshift community of soldiers communicating with a freedom and banality that felt decadent, almost civilian.
Graffiti is a category of public communication. It’s advertising for the marginalized, something only considered vandalism by people in positions privileged enough to have access to legal forms of mass communication. As Jeff Ferrell explains in Crimes of Style (1993),
Graffiti writing breaks the hegemonic hold of corporate/governmental style over the urban environment and the situations of daily life. As a form of aesthetic sabotage, it interrupts the pleasant, efficient uniformity of ‘planned’ urban space and predictable urban living. For the writers, graffiti disrupts the lived experience of mass culture, the passivity of mediated consumption.
That would seem to explain the motives of a certain segment of mostly urban and contemporary taggers. But as my experiences in the latrines suggest, it’s more useful to say simply that people make graffiti wherever they don’t feel comfortable—embellishing the physical space to feel more psychologically at home.
No one is anonymous when they’re part of a community. That’s why so much graffiti carries a basic ontological message: I exist. In DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Moonman 157 (legal name Ismael Muñoz) becomes discerning about his graffiti, suggesting the sophisticated sense of self necessary for higher-order art: “You have to tag the trains. The trains come down the rat alleys all alike and then you hit a train and it is yours, seen everywhere in the system, and you get inside people’s heads and vandalize their eyeballs.” In America (1986), Jean Baudrillard emphasized this as a primary goal of graffiti in America, writing that graffiti “simply say[s]: I am so-and-so and I exist! They are free publicity for existence.”
In the popular imagination, graffiti is gritty and urban: it conjures the likes of DeLillo’s subway cars, tattooed from top to bottom, inside and out. But of course the form predates spray paint—its lineage is long, and it comprises its own folk language. In the same way that you could imagine a thread running from, say, the Wife of Bath to Nicki Minaj, it often seems that ancient graffiti is in conversation with our own. At the Hagia Sophia a few years ago, I made a game of searching the upper floor apse and Southern gallery for the oldest scratchiti I could find. I found marks in Latin, Greek, and Arabic, among other languages, but the oldest graffiti there is a Viking runic inscription from the ninth century that says simply, “Halfdan carved these ruins.” The Hagia Sophia itself had changed hands so often through history, with shifting casts of rulers hosting guests and being overrun by invaders, that to view the etchings on its walls is to study a sedimental cross-section of historical outsiders. Their vandalism was both a confirmation of existence and an attempt to redecorate an alien space.
Ancient graffiti could be refreshingly modern in its perversity. Preserved in the ruins of Pompeii are such effervescent inscriptions as
Restitua, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates!
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
And the elegant brevity of EGO VITA PINCERNA: “I screwed the barmaid.”
The odd modernity of ancient graffiti derives not from its ability to shock, but because it’s so incredibly sophomoric. Like the inside of latrines in Iraq, none of these statements are entirely scandalous. They’re crude, but they’re also banal. Graffiti, the kind that doesn’t aspire to the level of art, works within a specific register. The transgressions are safe because they’re easily anticipated, situated as they are within a long tradition of dick jokes and scatological humor. If graffiti were music, it would have all the eye-rolling, cornball subtlety of a children’s sing-along.
The doodles, etchings, and paintings left by soldiers during wartime are a distinct subgenre of graffiti. The most well known example is “Kilroy was here,” a cute doodle of a long-nosed rapscallion peeking over a wall. Kilroy was ubiquitous on the Western Front during World War II, but his origins are a source of exegetical contention: he most likely sprang from a conflation of slang derived from the name of the American shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy and a British cartoon series featuring a character called Mr. Chad. The Australians had their own variant on Kilroy, “Foo was here,” which may date back to World War I. Other Kilroys included Clem, Private Snoops, The Jeep,”and Overby. The Kilroys’ adorable charm strikes a single, plangent note in the wide oeuvre of war graffiti—it’s more typically scatological, as the Iraq latrines show, but it can be stridently sincere, too. The wonderful Vietnam Graffiti: Messages from a Forgotten Troopship (2004) recounts the scribbles, obscenities, and touching poetry that U.S. troops scrawled on the underside of canvas bunks en route to Vietnam. On one bunk, under a few lines of Morse code, was this:
You’re the one who
must decide who’s
to live and who’s to die.
You’re the one who gives his
body as a weapon of the
war—and without you all
this killing can’t go on.
People use graffiti to say that they exist; to communicate through space and time; to participate in the folk art of the eye-roll; and, most important, to redecorate foreign surroundings with the baubles of familiarity. That familiarity comes in many forms, penises and poems among them. It’s the same impulse that led astronauts to play golf when they landed on the moon—just a touch of something ordinary to make the alien more hospitable. Tracing “NEIL WAS HERE” onto the dusty bottom of the Sea of Tranquility would have also sufficed.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Portland, Maine. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum, Al Jazeera, and The Baffler, among other places.