The assault on the rabbi might have stung the most.
The staff of Red Derby discovered the bathroom painting defaced with thick, black marker scrawls one night about two years ago. Not long after, George Washington and the Virgin Mary were hit. Like barroom kudzu, the graffiti had spread slowly throughout the walls of the bathrooms since the opening of the bar in 2007, but now, inebriated taggers had turned their pens to the decor, even leaving some of the paintings’ subjects completely indiscernible beneath the tangle of frenzied ink strokes.
So Sasha Carter, the co-owner of the Columbia Heights bar, came up with a plan. Tired of seeing her walls marred by graffiti that she says lacked “integrity,” Carter started covering it up each week—not to restore order to her business’ lavatories, but to replace the marker tags with chaos she could get behind.
These days, Carter can be found every Sunday night in Red Derby’s bathrooms, meticulously decoupaging stalls with magazine and newspaper cutouts she collected over the previous week. “It’s kind of become an obsession,” she says. “I can’t even read a paper anymore, I get so distracted with picking out new pieces.” Now the walls contain an assemblage of old and new tags, black and white photos, paintings, and articles. Taken in at once, Red Derby’s bathrooms have become a kaleidoscopic ode to humanity’s compulsion to create and destroy beauty and then do it all over again.
Tipplers have been scrawling names, phalluses, inspirational messages, and sacrilegious insinuations on the walls of bathrooms for as long as bars have benefited from modern plumbing. (The folklorist Alan Dundes is credited with coining the term “latrinalia,” referring to the various kinds of bathroom graffiti, in 1966.) Some bars clean up bathroom tags as soon as they find them. Others, perhaps less interested in an air of respectability, leave them be. And a handful, like Red Derby, have found more creative solutions to prevent, complement, or even encourage restroom art.
When Ivy and Coney opened in Shaw last year, its owners knew their customers would have their way with the lavatories. “Having worked in bars before, I knew that the bathroom would get graffitied, so we just thought, ‘we’ll decorate the main area and let our customers decorate the bathrooms,’” co-owner Jamie Hess says.
Now the bar staff hands Sharpies to patrons, an encouraging stance that Hess hopes elevates the medium above its go-to penis sketches and sex solicitations. “If you’re going to draw a dick, at least make it tasteful,” says co-owner Chris Powers. “Like the statue of David.” Encouraging bathroom art has been a hit at the bar, whose Midwestern sports theme has inspired customers to write spirited disses of Chicago and Detroit. “Because [they] don’t readily try to deter it, it almost seems like it’s more creative,” Hess says.
Ask local bartenders how they feel about latrinalia and they quickly get philosophical, offering detailed soliloquies denouncing or embracing the practice. Murad Khan, a bartender at Solly’s U Street Tavern, doesn’t mind it, as long as patrons don’t actually ask for a Sharpie. “My first night here a girl asked me for a marker, and I gave it to her,” he says. “She immediately disappeared into the bathroom for a long time, and my boss said, ‘What the fuck, man? Don’t do that.’”
On H Street NE, Rock & Roll Hotel co-owner Steve Lambert accepts that “for a music venue, graffiti seems like it goes along with the general vibe.” Still, he hasn’t been impressed. “Generally it’s just some low-ball shit. Nothing I’ve seen has ever inspired me,” he says. So Rock & Roll Hotel now picks its battle, policing the bathrooms off of the second-floor bar while allowing graffiti to flourish, within reason, in the restrooms behind the first floor’s concert stage. “If you let it be, it’ll spread like a disease and it will be everywhere. People see it and soon they’re writing on mirrors,” Lambert says.
Of course, taking time during service or even after hours isn’t always feasible. At Looking Glass Lounge in Park View, Jeff Gero and his team break out their crusted-over paint cans every four months or so, hoping to reclaim their bathroom walls. “It’s a tough balance,” the bar’s managing partner says, “because we paint over it and then it’s a fresh canvas and they’ll be new ‘art work’ on it the next day. We try and cover up the offensive stuff immediately, but otherwise let it go.”
And then there are the bar bathrooms with which you wouldn’t want management to tamper. Lavatories like the ones at the Raven Grill (sample tag: “If you took a cab here, you don’t belong here”), Tune Inn (“+3 times National Debt + regulatory lapses costing 13-14 trillion dollars – wake up!”), and Dan’s Cafe (“It smells like an old lady farted piss in here”) are practically iconic among local bar-goers, with enthusiastic Yelp pages and plenty of Instagram evidence. At Columbia Heights’ Wonderland Ballroom, co-owner Rose Donna describes some of the bathroom tags the way one might talk about a religious icon. One of her favorites is a Sharpied addition under the “Employees Must Wash Hands” sign: “no thanks I’ll wash my own.” Over at Ivy and Coney, Donna even contributed a tag: “Detroit pussy smells like gasoline.” (“I’m from Detroit and I saw that written on a wall back home,” she says.)
Donna’s theory of D.C. bathroom art isn’t much of a stretch: “I think D.C. graffiti is more political than elsewhere,” she says. “You won’t find much ‘F the Republicans’ in Detroit.” Gero concurs: “We get a lot about the Freedom of Information Act.” Other bartenders see some of the more geographically specific bathroom messages as reflections of the well-worn cliche that D.C. is a town of transients. That, anyway, is why Khan wrote “Pashtuns Rule” inside one of Solly’s bathrooms. And at Ivy and Coney, someone wrote “Friends don’t let friends drink Malört,” a succinct diss of the liquor produced by Carl Jeppson Company of Chicago.
While embracing graffiti works at some bars, others have adapted the tradition more cannily. Kendra Kaidel, the manager of Park View’s DC Reynolds, was tired of constantly painting over offensive sayings in the bathrooms, so she and local artist Chloe Rubenstein covered the high walls with chalkboard paint and Mad Libs prompts, turning the lavatories into a venue for creative interaction between guests. Now the amount of hateful graffiti has significantly decreased, Rubenstein says; given chalk, would-be taggers tend to get more lighthearted. Still, while the downstairs bathroom near the family-friendly patio is kept PG, the upstairs bathroom engages patrons in a giant fill-in-the-blank game that delves into sex, dark secrets, and hidden desires.
The prompts include “My deepest secret is:____” and “When I’m hungover I:______.” On one, a patron wrote: “Penis is divine but masturbation is quicker.” There’s also, “The weirdest place I’ve had sex is: air traffic control tower.” They call it the DC Reynolds Confessional.
“We wanted to play around with the original concept of graffiti, to give patrons the opportunity to share uncensored things in a public forum,” Rubenstein says. Of course, “we still get the occasional penis drawing, but they’re no longer omnipresent.”
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Photo of Red Derby by Darrow Montgomery