King's graffiti has class

Students deface washrooms with philosophical musings or Latin phrases


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Latin phrase on the stall wall in a basement washroom at the University of King’s College. A rough, and kind, translation would be “worthless writings.” (Photo: Dane Butler)

Aristotle described wit as "well-bred insolence." This is just one of many snippets of philosophy that adorn bathroom walls at the University of King's College.

King's graffiti is often reflective of the classical nature of the university - much is in Latin.

The bathrooms in the Arts and Administration building at King's are old. They don't date to the founding of Canada's oldest chartered university in 1789, but they do invoke memories of porcelains past. Yellow paint, faded mirrors and a perhaps less-than-enticing odour define the space. But those things aren't reflective of the school itself.

King's style graffiti

"Graffiti is writing where it isn't supposed to be or isn't wanted," writes Paul A. Erickson in his book Graffiti Halifax Style. Erickson notes graffiti appearing in bathrooms is dubbed "private graffiti," as opposed to "public graffiti" that tend to appear in visible public areas, where the artist is trying to show off.

As bathrooms are both rooms and spaces it's no wonder they turn into a forum for discussion. "Here, we value and nourish ideas," notes the King's website. "Discussions flow effortlessly, creatively and unexpectedly and connections are made in all rooms, corridors and spaces on campus."

Erickson also notes that bathroom writings are often crude. King's graffiti is not immune but, at King's, it's more about wit. Or, at least, the crudeness is written in Latin. A stall wall is adorned with the phrase "cacata carta" - which translates as "letters defecated on," or "worthless writings" - and other passages written in precise calligraphy.

There are also non-crude passages written in Latin in the basement men's bathroom. In one case a Latin passage is corrected by someone else, errors are circled with arrows suggesting the original passage was written by a first-year student, the corrections are corrected and the dialogue goes on.

The president and vice-chancellor of King's, William Barker, has mixed views on the graffiti. He says the English professor in him likes the subversiveness of bathroom graffiti, depending on the motivation. If the motivation is violence or bigotry or wanton destruction, then he has little sympathy.

The financial cost

Barker recognizes that graffiti costs the school money to clean up. "In terms of finances it's bad ... but there are always going to be those spontaneous outbursts," he says.

Graffiti will be painted over or cleaned at some point, most likely during holiday periods. Exactly what covering up the graffiti costs King's isn't known. Bursar Gerry Smith isn't certain of the cost. "It's not a number I've ever seen," he said.

Cleanup costs are rolled into the general and facilities maintenance budget, which is consistently the third-highest expense for King's, according to budget documents. More than $1.5 million has been spent on maintenance each year since 2006.

Scrawling graffiti violates the university's code of conduct, which states that, "No student or employee shall deface the property of the University of King's College."

Perhaps as a musing on the mixed reviews graffiti receives, a student wrote a quote from Stoic philosopher and freed slave, Epictetus: "What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things."


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