A.C. Snow

Why do folks scrawl messages on restroom walls?

On the way to the beach, we stopped for a break at a McDonald’s just off I-40 near Warsaw.

As I entered the men’s room, I was greeted by laughter and conversation from someone in one of the stalls. I wondered why someone would be talking to himself. I soon ascertained that he was on his cellphone, sharing the commentaries written on the stall’s wall.

Writing on public restroom walls is an odd but old form of expression that seems to be on the wane.

Either the owners of public restrooms I visit on the way to the beach or Surry County are doing more painting over or Tar Heels have become more clean-minded.

“Not so,” a friend insists. “Graffiti artists have abandoned toilet walls for the Internet where they get wider and instant readership.”

I’ve often wondered what inner urge compels people to write on restroom walls. I’ve concluded that the practice is part of an innate urge to be published, even if the creative output has a limited readership determined primarily by the volume of traffic on the nearby highway.

Graffiti by no means is limited to restroom walls. It can be found on buildings, on sidewalks and especially on subways in our larger cities.

Let’s not assume that all graffiti is pornographic. The dictionary defines graffiti as “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed illicitly on a wall or in a public place.”

For 10 years, as a moonlighting sideline to my newspapering job, I taught a journalism class at N.C. State University and served as adviser to the campus newspaper, the Technician.

My path to my classroom led through the Free Expression Tunnel, a campus landmark.

Its walls were covered generously with off-color compositions but also featured other creative expression, including brief commentaries on current campus issues.

Occasionally, when the tunnel’s writings became too raunchy or included racist comments, maintenance personnel would repaint its interior, giving the students a fresh slate on which to record their concerns or creative talent.

E.B. White, author and longtime columnist for The New Yorker magazine, cited an example of the compulsion to publish one’s literary efforts.

In his book “Second Tree from the Corner,” White describes an incident that supposedly occurred in Norfolk, Va., during World War II, when automobile tires were strictly rationed.

A woman had parked her car and forgotten to lock it. Also, she had left her purse with her jewelry in it lying on the front seat.

She returned later to find all four tires missing, although the purse and contents were still intact.

On the car seat was a note that read:

Roses are red, violets are blue.

Your pearls are nice,

But your tires are new.

The Norfolk newspaper said the theft was the work of a thief with a flair for poetry.

“Not so,” said White. “It was the case of a poet who was willing to attempt any desperate thing, even larceny, to get his poem published.

“Clearly, here was a man who had written something and gone up and down the world seeking the precise situation that would activate his poem.

“It must have meant long nights and days of wandering before he found a car with jewels lying loose on the front seat and four good tires on the wheels. Poets endure much for the sake of their art.”

Putting words together on paper, on the Internet or on toilet walls, to convey emotions, opinion or pertinent information can be powerfully therapeutic.

Sharing such personal data, even anonymously, can dilute a person’s pent-up passions or help purge the poisons that sometimes seep into the soul.

Also, your creative harvest can open windows of hope, strew kernels of happiness or bring moments of levity to other people’s lives.

So, write on.