Arizona State University: where literacy comes to die

Recent works of fiction, including Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, depict a future where traditional literacy has become a niche skill, and the general populace relies on simple symbols for written communication. An examination of the graffiti of Hayden Library at Arizona State University leaves one with the impression that such a scenario might not be so far-fetched. (If you want to explore it yourself, here’s the photo set and transcription.)

ASU library graffiti has three unique and striking features:

  1. The number of messages consisting primarily or exclusively of frat names
  2. The high frequency with which gay and fag are used as insults
  3. The amount of scratches — not drawings, but animalistic scratches on the desks

Frat names

I was astonished at the prevalence of the genre of graffiti consisting of one or more sets of frat names– without any context, or at best, with an associated negative judgment, often phrased in homophobic manner. The dark wood study desks on the upper levels of the library are covered in this kind of graffiti, and I quickly grew tired of photographing it. Taken collectively, frat names would be by far the most frequently used “word” in the entire graffiti corpus. There’s nothing unique about frat names (even, much to my chagrin, at the University of Chicago), nor the combination of frat names and homophobia (even, again, at the University of Chicago), but the extent to which it appears to be the dominant form of “discourse” at Arizona State is stunning.


Consider for a moment, if you will, the top five words from the corpus:

  1. love(s) – 34
  2. fuck(s/er/a/in/ing, etc.) – 27
  3. gay(s) – 12
  4. fag(s/gots, etc.) – 12
  5. like(s) – 11

I think that pretty much says it all.

It would’ve been interesting to explore the men’s bathrooms at ASU, to look for private examples of racism, antisemitism, and misogyny to contrast with public homophobia like at the University of Chicago. Alas, skulking around men’s bathrooms at my home institution is one thing, and doing so at other universities is entirely another.


ASU is not lacking in drawings of genitalia, but the phenomenon of assorted scratches is not one I’ve seen elsewhere. Perhaps it is on account of these seemingly-feral students roaming the building that those interested in pursuing serious study are caged. No joke. The equivalent to the private study carrel found at other universities is a small caged room that could pass as an inmate’s cell.

Attack of the space felines

One day while spending two months at ASU, my husband came across this graffiti narrative in a classroom. “Literate” might be slightly overstating the case, but it does have a certain spark of creativity, doesn’t involve any frat names or homophobia, and I think it makes for the least depressing conclusion to this post:

To many puppies Are Being Shot in The dark

That’s because the horses can’t buy anymore ammo for the farmers.

Else, the puppies simply could not afford to pay the new taff tariffs on electricity imposed by the draconian rule of the Cilk, space-felines from a distant galaxy. After the Clik snuffed out our sun, the genocidal execution of the puppy-dogs had to take place in the dark. For you see, the Clik simply hate candles.

A note on blog updates

My goal has been to write something about graffiti every week, and update the blog accordingly. As you may have noticed, it’s just not happening. Instead of spurring me to action, that goal has just left me feeling guilty as I miss one week then another, and begin to resent the extent to which this project is monopolizing my time. (I’ve got three other projects going on that need attention too.) If I try to keep up the pace I’ve set for myself, it won’t be long before I drop this project altogether.

I’ve decided to aim for writing something monthly for the blog, with the thought being that 12 meaningful posts that I’m interested in writing are better than 52 posts where I don’t have time in-between to explore a topic to the extent I’d like, and end up just throwing something together without much care or interest.

I’m still taking and uploading weekly photos, and will be sharing brief updates, anecdotes, and highlights from new graffiti on the Facebook page. And if I’m feeling inspired, I may on occasion write more than once a month. But that’s the plan, and it’s a necessary change if the blog is going to see its first anniversary. Thanks.

The Sexual Palimpsest of Brown University’s "Rock"

Brown University’s Rockefeller Library is reminiscent of UChicago’s Regenstein. They’re both rather ugly from the outside, they both have two basements, they both have nicknames (the “Rock” and “Reg”, respectively), and they’re both filled with graffiti mostly written in literate1 English.

In just three hours combing through the study areas in the Rock stacks, I collected over 500 pieces of graffiti– a number that took me about six months in the corresponding areas of the Reg. What’s the difference? Even though the Rock and the Reg have similar setups, (wood study desks and adjacent white walls) students at Brown tend to write on the desks, where at UChicago the majority of the graffiti appears on the walls, which are much easier to clean periodically. The result: desk-as-palimpsest, with some graffiti in areas of the desk that are less likely to be worn down by other people’s books and papers apparently persisting for 15+ years.

This is the first time I’ve been able to collect such a sizable corpus at any university besides UChicago, and Brown being an Ivy League school makes for a fairer comparison2 than, say, UChicago vs. Arizona State. If you want to explore the corpus yourself, here’s the photo set3 and the transcription of the English graffiti.

The spaces

There a lot more desks at Brown than UChicago– on most floors, they’re lined up in rows. Like at Berkeley and Mount Holyoke, it appears that at least some of the desks are reserved for individuals. Unlike Mount Holyoke, few of the desks are decorated, and I found only one note threatening anyone who might encroach on the space. (Don’t mess with Masumi’s desk. She’ll eat you.)


As I was walking through the library, madly snapping pictures (I maxed out my 4 GB memory card in the first hour and a half), a number of whimsical gems stuck in my mind. Recent UChicago graffiti additions haven’t been doing much for me lately; when I think of the corpus, the banal leaps to mind first. The novelty of the Brown graffiti made it seem fascinating and profound by comparison. The discovery of a hieroglyphic play on words seemed like a particularly striking similarity to the UChicago corpus.

But looking at word frequencies across a transcribed data set provides a more dispassionate view onto the data. Upon greater reflection, it seems like there are more differences than similarities between the sets of graffiti. The picture that emerges is of UChicago as a school of (at times gleefully) unhappy, critical students eager to one-up each other in intellectual (or less-intellectual) debates, whereas Brown leads more towards the hedonistic and happier, expressing their sexuality.

Perhaps the one thing students at both schools share is a dislike of organic chemistry.

Organic chemistry

In the Reg, students languish under the cruel hand of “o-chem“. In the Rock, it’s “orgo” that strikes fear into the hearts of students. And, as at UChicago, there’s always some masochist who enjoys it.


Despair is a theme so common in UChicago graffiti that it has its own photo set with over 70 photos. Students worry they aren’t smart enough, and are drowning and doomed. In the Brown graffiti corpus, one student wondered why they were accepted to Brown, and another student needs to be smarter, though those are the only examples of such sentiments.

At Brown, students seem pretty happy with the school; someone even wrote it a goodbye note. There’s no meme of “be happy” (suggesting happiness is an unrealized state) like at UChicago, and while there was one conversation about depression, it was by no means a pervasive topic.

Given that smiley and frowny faces often serve as a form of punctuation rather than being a meaningful indicator of overall state of being, I hesitate to bring it up in this context. For what little it may be worth, though, where UChicago has almost a 2:1 ratio of smiley to frowny faces, the ratio is 5:1 at Brown.


I’ve written about anti-LGBTQ graffiti at UChicago before, and Brown provides an interesting point of comparison and contrast. There are 8 examples in the public Brown study areas, compared to 12 in the corresponding spaces at UChicago; that’s about even, since the UChicago corpus has about twice as many words.

At UChicago, there’s greater variety in the words used (fag, flamer, gay, homo, homosexual, lesbo); at Brown, there’s only “gay”, “fag[got]” and “homosexual”. There’s one use of “lesbian” Furthermore, while “fag” was used less than “gay” at UChicago, it outnumbers “gay” in the Brown corpus.

Brown and UChicago sport nearly identical pieces of graffiti, where anti-LGBTQ language is used as a counter-response to someone responding to the word “retarded”; at UChicago, it’s “gay“; at Brown, it’s “faggot“. At Brown, Backgammon is for fags only, a “good fag suck” finds its way into some bad collective poetry, and “faggot” is used as a generic insult.

However, three of the eight pieces were subsequently censured by other students. “Why are there so many homosexuals at brown? is followed up by “Stop homophobia”. “Butt-chugger – GAY” has the incredulous reply “Really? In here!?”. And “NO GAYS” is rejected by a number of individuals: “U R Sick”, “no hatred”, “No ignorance”.

There’s a couple other pieces of graffiti at Brown that refer to LGBTQ individuals differently from those pieces mentioned above. A response to one piece about “hot chicks” asks “Are you lesbian?” without any apparent pejorative implication. A follow-up to a piece of graffiti about the directionality of penis bending states “Queers Bash Back“; if there was any initial anti-LGBTQ bashing, though, it’s been worn off the desk. Finally, one piece illustrates reproduction vs. pleasure, where pleasure is initially defined as ⚢ ⚣. Although a reply disagrees, there’s no homophobia in the response.


The topic of sex is perhaps the most significant point of divergence between UChicago and Brown. On one hand, UChicago has more penis drawings, even when accounting for the different corpus size. On the other hand, it seems like Brown has more of everything else.

Chicago has 43 sexually-focused words out of 9209– .4%. Brown has 70 such words out of 5352– 1.3%. For a comparison, see the following chart. Please keep in mind that the Brown corpus is about half the size of the UChicago corpus:

University Sex[y|ual] Fuck Suck Ass[hole] Penis Vagina
UChicago 8 6 (16%) 4 (16%) 3 (25%) 17 5


27 3 (9%) 8 (42%) 6 (50%) 7 19  

(% is percentage of the total uses of the word that are sexual, for those words that also have a non-sexual meaning. “Penis” and “Vagina” also include uses of “dick, cock, dong” and “pussy, cunt”, respectively.)

As you can see above, UChicago and Brown have a comparable amount of fucking (slightly more sexually at UChicago), but there is a great deal more sexual sucking at Brown. In fact, almost half the sucking at Brown is sexual, whereas both “fuck” and “suck” are used sexually only 16% of the time at UChicago.

UChicago has more penis references, even when taking the relative corpora sizes into consideration, but vaginas are referenced about 8x more often at Brown than UChicago.

The gems

Perhaps I’ve been a bit hard on Brown graffiti in this blog post. The fact is, walking into a study area covered in graffiti gave me a taste of the thrill I first felt when I started taking pictures in the Regenstein Library. It gave this project a much-needed jolt of life and made me want to write a blog post for the first time in over a month.

My favorite pieces of graffiti tend to be ones that don’t fit well under any header in a blog post highlighting the major trends at a given school. There’s ellipsis turning into bubbles from the mouth of a hungry fish. There’s Go Go Gadget Shroud of Turin, which feels like it should be an item in UChicago’s famous Scav Hunt. There’s “I used to believe but now I’m incredible“. There’s a quote from W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One“. But I’d like to close with an adapted quote from Rumi:

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are so many ways.




1 This seems like a trivial point, but it’s not a given. Just wait until I write about Arizona State University’s graffiti.

2 UChicago folks may be quick to mention that Brown is the lowest-ranked of the Ivies (#16 in the current rankings– compared to UChicago at #8). A good case can be made that rankings say very little, and UChicago was a more interesting and quirky place before the administration started making the changes that improved our ranking. There’s probably something to the idea that Brown’s image doesn’t include the intellectual firepower of UChicago; nonetheless, I think it’s hard to argue that it’s not a peer institution, all UChicago elitism aside.

3 There’s a fair amount of French, German and Greek graffiti, if anyone wants to help out with the translation. Just comment on the Flickr photo or e-mail me.

The fall and rise of the B-level men’s bathroom

Sometime between April 13th and today, the great purge came to the B-level men’s room in the Regenstein Library, clearing away the philosophical wordplay that made it truly the nerdiest place on earth. (Cue the sad trombones.) But fear not, the stalls are not bare– even though the graffiti has had no more than a month to re-emerge, both the nerdy wordplay and the “other” content have sprung back to life.

We’ve got some sort of battle scene between UChicago archers and Princeton wizards. Of course, the outcome of their petty battle hardly matters, since they’re about to be crushed by a reference to “Dr. Strangelove” (1959). (Personally, I wonder if it’s a successful reference if you have to say what it’s a reference to. Furthermore, if you’re going to be a know-it-all and include the release date of a film, you might want to make sure you get it right.)

While the B-level men’s room has traditionally had a striking number of vagina drawings, with a “severe lack of penis drawings“, currently the penis reigns supreme as the only genitalia represented in the stall. The penis is accompanied by the guardian angel of the stall, who has a goatee.

Some of the graffiti writers appear to be displeased with the latest turn of events:

Kindly refrain from “Cleansing” UChicago of its only bit of Charmin. (i.e. reg graffitti)

But not everyone sees this as a crisis:

They always crimp our style. But don’t be so Krauss. They’ve Freid so much space up to Fostor new puns!

If you find yourself missing the last round of intellectual wordplay, head on over to the B-level men’s bathroom graffiti page– I’ve got everything documented up through April 13, 2010.

Return of the hieroglyphs: M2 + Egypt = Awesome

The students responsible for the now world-famous* hieroglyphic sex graffiti have returned to express their love for Egypt.

I ran this one by my expert Egyptologist, and in addition to translating it they had some fascinating remarks about the characters they chose to render ‘Egypt’:

Egypt here is written with the “foreign land” determinative (hill-shapes) –when it’s written with a determinative it’s usually written with the “town” determinative (which looks like a circle with bisecting lines drawn inside of it). So the writing here contains a bit of a contradiction: it’s strange to see km.t written with the “foreign land” determinative because it was often used to determine words that are names of other countries or words that have a connection to “desert”, or “upland” (which is desert, in the case of Egypt); and km means “black”, km.t (with “town” determinative) literally means “black land”, i.e. the alluvial land of Egypt–the parts of Egypt that were inundated by the Nile when flooding, and was used by the Egyptians to refer to their country, or that part of it that was cultivable.


* Check out the article in Spiegel Online, “Graffiti in Uni-Bibliotheken: “Wir haben’s am Morgen zweimal gemacht“.


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