“No, man, you cannot divide by zero!”

Many years ago, someone scratched these words on the metal divider of a men’s room stall in a pizza joint near Hamline University in St. Paul: “Anonymous dialogue is a means of sanity.” The self-reflective statement could hold many meanings. It might look inward to the author’s motives—one can almost hear the sigh of mental relief—or to the motives of all graffitists. If not a means, is graffiti at least a measure of social sanity? Unfiltered and anonymous, it might be even more than a measure: a glimpse beneath the accepted veneer, a push to the boundaries of the collective conscious.
Or it might just be dirty doodling.
Garvin Davenport, the recently retired dean of Hamline University’s undergraduate school, and former chairman of Hamline’s English department, asserted that graffiti is secure text, emboldened by anonymity. “The writer can express … [with] no accountability or liability,” said Davenport.
Numerous studies of the subject trace “latrinalia,” as researcher Alan Dundes dubbed it in 1966, back to ancient times and across many cultures. In some cases, the content was remarkably similar to modern graffiti, like this message found in the ruins of Pompeii: “If you want to make love, ask for Attice. The price is 16 asses.”
A relatively recent survey of more than thirty local lavatories produced a fair sample of stall scrawl. The majority of the restrooms are now graffiti-free, thanks either to fresh coats of paint or ink-resistant walls, as at the Red Dragon on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, where this macabre proverb once appeared: “Build a man a fire, and he’ll stay warm for the night. Set a man on fire and he’ll stay warm for the rest of his life.”
Much of the graffiti was of the classic, unprintable variety: F-bombs and sexual boasts or invitations, explicit come-ons and vicious threats, ugly racial insults and attacks on sexual preference. Some restrooms feature a mess of florid, unreadable tags that express little more than “I was here.”
Of the printable graffiti, there was a lot of talk about God and religion. Politics and September 11th were discussed, and even the pure language of mathematics proved controversial, with corrections to a hypothetical equation and this scolding: “No, man, you cannot divide by zero!” Among the more rarified offerings were posthumous quotations of Dorothy Parker, James Dean, Baudelaire (in French, no less), and even the occult-/Wiccan-/pagan-goddess figure Babalon: “But to love me is better than all things.”
Perhaps the most thought-provoking—and chilling—example was a message at the Hard Times Café: “I lost my love and now I can’t make it anymore. So I’m going home. And I’m ending my sorry life. P.S. I had fun here, live for me.” The note inspired a rare signed response, this reassurance from a well-known regular whose girlfriend had recently died: “I didn’t write this.”
Here is a sample of other notable finds, organized by topic. “(R):” denotes the responses.
Religion: There is no God. (R): Is that your final answer? (R): Let him in your heart.
(R): Heaven is true. Satan will eat science alive.
Inspiration: Things may suck, but we can fight against apathy and make ’em better!
The optimist is the person who’s really in revolt.
Politics: No war but the class war.
Terrorism: 911 was your fault anyhow, honky. (R): If it were me, I’d 911 your punk ass next. This plane is a tower bomb.
Comments on the graffiti or its author: Unthinking redneck. (R): Overthinking hipster activist college student. (R): Over analytical tough guy with almost no teeth left. (R): People with too much time on their hands.
Hip-Hop and metaphysics: High North Hip Hop celebrate the culture of intelligent life by respectin’ the conscious said-rappahz of the past, present and future 2 elevate the said-culture of hip hop to its rightful place both mentally and musically. Long live the re-evolution of man space & time.
Sex: Toussaintt’s hot PS I did him PSS Really multiple times PSSS And I kissed him and his name is on my shirt—biotch!
Bad poetry (men’s room): I do not know what I may appear to the world/ but I myself I have seem to be/ like a boy playing on the shore/ and diverting myself in now and then/ finding a prettier shell
Bad poetry (women’s room): I want to make your ego bleed … Let it sting so you’ll never forget/ The past pain/ Through midnight rain/ Insecurities pool on the/ Grimy floor … (R): Don’t quit your day job.
Health: The superior doctor treats when there is no illness.
Rehabilitation: Harry was here! Finally recovered from drug and alcohol addiction, Oct. 2006 (R): Thank God! Keep up the good work, Harry. Congrats! (R:) God isn’t real.
Reformation: I will only write nice things now.