The many lives of Zar Room whiteboards

There’s a certain nook in the Zar Room of Crerar science library usually blocked from view by whiteboards that are often covered in interesting writing. I’ve found “Fight for survival PhD“, a confession of low-grade panic (with a helpful suggestion), linear algebra gone wrong, plans for a policy memo.

Recently, though, I found it covered in Chinese– then covered again in different Chinese, and then with the addition of what appears to be Persian. Unable to read either myself, I enlisted the help of the amazing typographer Muiz Anwar, the awesome programmer/designer/independent scholar of Chinese Peter Behr, the immensely cool grad student/photographer/knitter Lauren Osborne and the very talented artist Matthew Felix Sun. Sometimes it takes a village to write a blog post.

Spring and miscellanea

March 4, 2010

春江水暖鸭先知 is a Song dynasty line by Su Shi. “when the brook thaws in spring, the duck is first to know.”

悠悠我心 is a fragment from a well known couplet, meaning something along the lines of ‘lingering in my heart.’ (alt. translation ‘relaxed my heart’)

Red hat

Red revolution

Green hat, and a symbol of the cuckold; general rude phrase.

Literary graffiti

March 5, 2010

Whiteboard 1: A beautiful woman


Peter explains: “This is a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi 白居易. It is supposedly about female beauty. Line by line, it goes roughly like:

Trim an inch* and the whole becomes too short,
Add an inch and the whole becomes too long.
Her face needs no vermillion to be like flowers,
Her skin needs no powder to be like frost;
Colors as beautiful as anything under heaven,
And a heart like a gentleman among ladies.

(Translation by Matthew and Peter)

Matthew comments, “[The last line] seems to say that this woman has a heart like that of man, a misogynist point of view. People have made fun of the first two lines – is she tall or short? The poet wanted to have both ways.”

Whiteboard 2: Military ode

Matthew says, “The first relates to history of Han Chinese fighting off nomadic invaders and the second expresses sentiment that in China the militant heroes are of the things past and people are being too soft. Both are quite ‘heroic’ in tone but also nationalistic.”

Peter adds, “On cursory inspection this is an old ballad. ‘a guest came from the east, and told me of matters in Jianghu,’ etc. normally, though, it seems that the fictional locale of Jianghu (江湖) is usually replaced with Shenyang (沈阳), and this version has other minor variations from this example I found.”


There is/are a guest/guests from the east
Telling me affairs of adventures
Listening to guest(s)’s gossip, I sneered
Facing monkish lamp alone, I could not sleep
Near ten cups of wine finished, my heart grew colder
Flipped weapon in front of a gold beaker
Chirping insects’ sound hovering low, while the stars and moon are fading
Noble spirit collides parapets
In the past when middle land [meaning Han China] was covered by invasion signs of wolf-dung smokes
Paladins resolutely propped up the House of Han people
Asking the universe: How many good heads?
The crazy knife beheads ninety-nine thousands
The blood of those nomadic northern Hu bandits, dyed red the country, in one whole piece

(Translation by Matthew)

Whiteboard 3: Just plain depressing


Come to this, Taishi [a title of an ancient high ranking office holder] became silent as well
Looking up at the sky, a long sigh
There were heroes in the past five thousand years
Whenever there were grievances, they relied on swords
Marched ten steps and slaughter hundred
Washed out the unjustness and gloom
In today’s peaceful world, martial arts disappeared
Nine prefecture [China] don’t hear the movement of storm and thunder
Feelings only suitable for trivial life
Poison in honey is the route to become heroes
Night after night rotten banquet and entertainment
Inside tassel canopy, lie the drunken masses
Thousands years heroes achievements, not worth a penny
Both Zhuanzhu and Niezheng [ancient heroes who assassinated tyrant and autocrat] can be sneered at, thus calculated the wise
Looking at River Yi [Another great hero assassin, Jingke who acrossed River Yi to try to kill the tyrant King of Qin, who became the 'First Emperor' of China] by the bank of River Yi, River Yi murmured and aspiration sank
Instrument string broken [also means the death of wife] and no more old friends

(Translation by Matthew)

A Persian pick-me-up

March 10, 2010

The literary Chinese took up only three of the four whiteboards. The fourth whiteboard remained blank for days, until I came in to find it covered in what seems to be Persian. Lauren helped pick out the Arabic loanwords for me, and Muiz took a stab at the rest (with the caveat that he wasn’t sure about some of the possibly-Persian words). Regardless, it’s a turn for the cheerier after the previous Chinese whiteboard:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Bismillah, Ir Rahman, Ir Raheem
In The Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful

…ءان شاء االله نجاح
InshAllah najah…
God willing, the success of the…

…هرهاي ماريا افراح…
…H(a)rhay Maria Afrah…
…(???) Maria enjoy…


“God willing, enjoy the success of (?) Maria and Greg”

A few days later, everything was erased and replaced by a few notes for a problem set.

And this quarter, the room is reserved for a virtual anatomy course, and remains locked and empty almost all the time.

* In the original, ‘fen’ (=1/100 chi, 1 chi = 1/3 meter)

Crescat Graffiti: blocked in China?

A random bit of miscellanea: based on Matthew Felix Sun‘s recent experiments, it seems that this website is blocked in China. It’s no surprise that some of the images are censored in the Flickr sets– there’s a known issue [Wikipedia] with certain Flickr image servers– things on and seem to be available, but not farm1, farm3 or farm5.

But if you try to go to in China, you get “Page not available“, along with a bar asking the user if they’d like to translate the (unavailable) English-language page into Chinese.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit puzzled. The site has nothing to do with the Chinese government and very little to do with politics, and there’s only one piece of graffiti that mentions Tibet. Maybe it falls under websites that contain “obscenity, pornography, and criminal activity”– admittedly, the inherently-criminal UChicago graffiti does include plenty of content that is arguably obscene and/or pornographic.

Go figure.

(P.S. After posting this, I noticed today’s date. No April Fools here, though, folks…)

Alumni retrospectives: how writing about graffiti can get you into college

After some recent publicity in the University of Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Tribune, alumni have been e-mailing me with their own memories of UChicago graffiti. With their permission, I’d like to share them here.

Eric Blommel (AB Philosophy ’92) recalls:

  1. I shit, therefore I am shit.
  2. For a good time, call… another school and transfer!
  3. [Written on the TP dispenser] University of Chicago Diplomas. Take one.
  4. The entire text of “Jabberwocky”, each stanza in different handwriting.
  5. [In a girl's stall] Nature abhors a vacuum…that’s why I lost my virginity.


Twenty years later, GianCarlo Nardini remembers from Eckhart math library “Life is like a bowl of cereal. No, life IS a bowl of cereal.”

The library may frown on graffiti, but Caitlin Wylie’s admissions essay won the hearts of the people over at Admissions. To answer a question about why she wanted to go to UChicago, Caitlin (class of ’08) wrote about the graffiti she saw when visiting as a prospective student:

I knew the University of Chicago was for me when I entered the
Regenstein Library. The book smell, the computer tables, the little
study booths, and the silence all seemed pretty typical, until I
wandered into the biggest room I’ve ever seen. I tiptoed down the
infinite rows of tall metal bookcases with my jaw dropped in
admiration. After a while I reached a wall with lonely desks set into
it, and the area was so isolated that I felt a little uneasy. Then I
noticed the writing on the blank wall in front of every desk. The
millions of messages were wonderful, witty and insightful and unusual
and sarcastic. An entire physics problem spanned one wall, floor to
ceiling. There were whole conversations that obviously spanned months
of correspondence between U of C students. There was a drawing of a
gravestone bearing the words, “Here lies the hope that I will ever get
my paper done.” I love that U of C students, famous for heavy
studying, take breaks from their books to leave words of encouragement
and entertainment for their comrades. The attraction of U of C is not
the partying-proficiency of its students, but their dedication, focus,
and ability to have great fun discussing the subjects they love,
verbally or on library walls. In high school, class topics do not
travel outside the room, but, as far as I can tell, discussion and
education happen all the time at U of C.

I’d love to hear more graffiti stories from alumni– feel free to drop me a line at quinn – at – or post to the Facebook page.

F(l)AGS ARE G(r)AY: socially acceptable homophobia

In the 1960′s, before the Regenstein Library was built, racism wasn’t hard to find in the graffiti written in Harper Library and elsewhere on campus. Today, it has been driven into the “private” space of men’s bathroom stalls, along with a number of other comments that would likely be censured by other graffiti-writers, if not brought to the attention of the campus “bias response team”. In some of these bathroom stalls, the mask of civility drops to reveal expressions of racism and antisemitism that you can’t find in “public” graffiti spaces like the stacks, study carrels, and whiteboards of the Reg.

What you don’t find in the bathrooms is a disproportionate amount of homophobia. Why make a special trip to the bathroom when you can freely insult LGBTQ students wherever you would normally write graffiti?

Looking through my graffiti corpus*, there are 141 unique pieces that either use anti-LGBTQ language or single out LGBTQ students (see the photo set). Out of about 1700 photos, that seems to be a trivial number. And in a sense, it is– from hieroglyphic sex graffiti to philosopher-name wordplay, fun over time and chemistry, University of Chicago students mostly write about other things.

Those 14 pieces, though, appear less trivial when compared with the graffiti directed towards other groups. Graffiti expressing racism (1)2, antisemitism (4), and misogyny (4)3combined total up to 9 pieces. (See the photo set.) Of those, the racist graffiti and three of the four antisemitic pieces are located in men’s bathrooms. In contrast, only two of the 14 LGBTQ-related pieces (14%) are in the bathroom– the rest are in public places.

Remarkably, graffiti that can be read as relating to LGBTQ students seems to be more likely to attract remarks in public than in the bathrooms. There are no comments next to the m4m ads in the bathroom, but juxtapose two names of the same gender in the Reg stacks, and additions of GAY, lesbos, or fags inevitably follow.

Three of the 14 pieces (21%) use the word “gay” as a generic derogatory term. It’s used in response to a drawing and quote, as a reason for not partying (“Why leave now? Let’s Party For the Rest of the Night. No, I’m gay“, and has been directed towards the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

Half of the graffiti (four pieces, plus the comments on two same-sex names, mentioned above) makes reference to homosexuality as an insult. Phrases like “Marshall(straight)” and “aileen(NOT HOMO)” make it difficult to read the “proof” for Travis = gay2 as an example of “gay” as a generic insult. A recommendation to “do your work nonstop” during fall 2007 concludes “& this advice applies to homosexuals as well“– nothing explicitly negative, but one does not get the sense that LGBTQ students are being singled out positively. More direct is a piece in Latin: “tu es gay, ego > tu” (you are gay, I am better than you). Most recently, “gay/flamer” was used in response to a student’s objection about another student using the word “retarded”.

The pie chart, right, shows the relative distribution of the words used in LGBTQ-directed graffiti. Out of 22 instances (some pieces of graffiti have more than one), “gay” is used 36% of the time, followed by “fag” at 27%. The particular offensiveness of the latter term probably helps account for its use in both pieces of men’s room graffiti. The word was used by itself, without any apparent context from other nearby graffiti. In both cases, the word was neutralized to some extent by the insertion of a strategically placed “L” after the “F”. The two examples from the Reg stacks are somewhat different. One, mentioned above, was in response to two men’s names with a heart. This use was protested, but that response was subsequently trivialized with a “your mom” remark. The other example was captured during one of my earliest trips to take pictures in the stacks, and the original comment is cut off but clear from context. There was an ongoing discussion where insults were being thrown around, and one student wrote “Stop being a ball-sucking fag”. At some point, another student replied: “Tell him. I’m just working with what’s already on the table. And what makes “Asshole” more mature than “ball-sucking fag” anyways? I’d say that the later[sic] is a little more self-aware in this context, you ball-sucking fag.”

That said, even in the face of anti-LGBTQ tautologies (right), there are signs that sexuality is becoming a non-issue. In a Harper men’s room stall, someone wrote “Fags are Gay”, subsequently diffused somewhat when an “l” and “r” were added. But then there’s the follow-up comment: “Definitely so, but who cares dude?” It’s not ideal, but maybe it’s its own kind of progress.



* This corpus documents the walls in the Regenstein bookstacks weekly since September 2007, the A-level whiteboards daily for a few months in early 2008, the study carrels every quarter or so since last summer, the B-level men’s room from earlier this year, and the Harper and Reg bathrooms once in the last week.

1 Not counting God, why am I gay? which may have been written sincerely rather than as an insult. I’m also not entirely sure what to make of “Joke’s on you– I’m gay” in response to “If men could get pregnant, would you do it?”. It doesn’t necessarily seem homophobic, so I’m not including it in the count.

2 There’s also two pieces of graffiti, one from a Crerar men’s bathroom and another from the Reg stacks, that make positive comments about “Asian pussy” and “Black pussy“. Perhaps not racism, but not exactly in good taste.

3 I’m interpreting “misogyny” liberally here– I think at least the proof of women = problems falls more in the category of making a joke out of a phrase that exists in popular culture rather than an insult towards women.

Don’t discuss politics in polite company (go to the bathroom)

I was tipped off to a men’s bathroom in Harper– a building with a number of classrooms, the adviser offices, and an all-night study space– that was covered in graffiti, and with the help of some male door-guards (my awesome coworkers Ifeanyi Okonma and Avi Schwab), I was able to hit up all the men’s and women’s bathrooms in the building.

As I’ve said before, I’m not really a fan of bathroom graffiti. I usually find it rather dull and predictable, it’s something of a cliche, and I prefer graffiti written where everyone can see it. That said, as this project has expanded from the graffiti in the Regenstein Library stacks to graffiti on university campuses more broadly, I can’t afford to ignore what’s going on in the bathrooms. (Note: all links and images are clickable to see a bigger version of the graffiti, and will open overlaid over the page to not disrupt reading.)

The amount of graffiti in the Harper bathrooms alone was overwhelming, and it’s going to take a number of blog posts to get into everything that’s going on there. But I’d like to start with a follow-up to an earlier blog post on politics. As noted previously, there isn’t much political graffiti around, other than a burst of activity in the run-up to the 2008 election. One of the exceptions noted was some anti-UN commentary in the B-level men’s room (in a stall best known for its philosopher-name wordplay.) At the time, I dismissed it as someone’s pet peeve, but after checking out some other bathrooms, it does look to me that the anti-UN graffiti is part of a larger trend of men discussing politics through graffiti in the bathroom– at least, to a greater extent than they discuss it through graffiti elsewhere.

Politics isn’t the only thing discussed to a greater extent in the bathrooms than elsewhere: antisemitism and racism are better represented in the bathrooms, there’s plenty of drawings of vaginas– whereas there are none in public places, there’s penis drawings galore, and there’s sex solicitations. At least in the Harper graffiti collection, homophobia was about par for the course compared to the non-bathroom graffiti. But all of these are the subject of their own discussions at a later date.

Election graffiti

These bathrooms clearly haven’t been painted over in a long while, and some of the graffiti looks like it dates back to the election. In addition to the “Vote Obama” sign (right), we have a potential write-in candidate asking you to vote for him, despite showing some disturbing ignorance of who the main candidates are: Fuck Obama-n-Bush, u Should Vote For ME.

Local politics

The “FUCK EL GOBIERNO” next to “Vote Obama” doesn’t name names, but Rod Blagojevich seems like a perfectly plausible target.


Seeing these pieces of graffiti surprised me, but it’s hard to know what to make of it without knowing when it was written. It’s from the bathroom on the mezzanine, which I hear they recently reopened to accommodate bathroom breaks from the new all-night study space in Harper. It’s entirely possible, as far as I know, that some or all of it could date from 2001.

Layered around a comment about the criminality of writing on the wall and a badly-written Om (ॐ) are the remarks DON’T BELIEVE THE 9/11 LEGEND!, BBC: 1 of 19 “hijackers” <–(stolen/fake IDs) still alive!. Mostly erased and mostly illegible is some comment about Cheney and 9/11 war games.

Democrats vs. Republicans

First, someone suggested that the Young Republicans be drafted. Then, someone changed it to Democrats. And then some name-calling broke out. “Dummycrats” was crossed out and replaced with “RetardedAsscrats”– which I have to assume is one Republican escalating another’s insult.


There’s a long thread that begins with the prompt “Revolt Against the Modern World Someone has helpfully contextualized it by adding (i.e. capitalism, e.g.) The reply: “Have fun with that, dumbass. Why not “revolt against gravity” from the top of the Sears Tower while you’re at it?” The response to that is a shit-joke, but the following response is the much-modified MODERNITY IS REVOLTageING.

Someone also wrote: “The people will rise or continue to lead Their shitty lives” (and someone more cynical has helpfully offered “but” as an alternative to “or” in this sentence.)


Near the political name-calling, someone’s written “Commies: so annoying“, to which someone added “and right”.

One writer griped that “Only little people pay taxes”– before someone else helpfully added in a “the”, I’m sure to clear up any possible misunderstandings about taxes on dwarfism.

And then there’s the long thread on capitalism:
Capitalism creates scarcity
with Values, Passions, And Humanity
Passion IS Reality
Shit interferes with passion

Law and the State

Finally, written in sharpie on one of the stall doors, you can find “Do what thou Wilt shall be the Whole of the Law”, a quote from English occultist Aleister Crowley’s “Liber AL vel Legis” (The Book of the Law). It gets a nod of approval, “True that”, but also gets co-opted into political commentary: “in the horrible, doomed anarchist state subject to inane, overenthusiastic Enlightenment nonsense”.

What’s here, what’s missing

In the men’s bathrooms, you can find the sorts of political expressions you might expect from the 18-22 crowd: things about uprisings, communism, capitalism interfering with “Values, Passions and Humanity”. But, other than the 9/11 graffiti (which I do suspect was written shortly thereafter), and possibly “Fuck El Gobierno” (depending on when it was written) it’s all generalities. Graffiti written in direct response to current political events, like my baby-boomer coworker was inquiring after, is still nowhere to be found.

Furthermore, the apparent relegation of even these general political discussions to the bathroom perhaps suggests that politics– like expressions of negative feelings about Jews or African-Americans– is best brought up in private, rather than in the “polite company” of library bookstacks, whiteboards, or study carrels.

It’s worth noting that all of this graffiti was from the men’s bathrooms. While I checked in the corresponding women’s bathrooms, there was only graffiti in one of them, primarily consisting of a discussion about whether a robotic arm is desirable, and some references to Lord of the Rings. Where do young women write about politics? Do young women even write graffiti about politics?


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