Game of thrones: how toilet graffiti is ‘the original social media’
Anybody who has visited a toilet cubicle in any city will have found themselves gazing at the graffiti on its walls – sometimes vulgar, occasionally political, often very funny. Few will have hit upon putting it in a gallery.
Except one. Karma Khazi – a guerilla artist operating under a lavatorial pseudonym (masking, I’m told, a not minor name in the world of art) – will next month unveil an exhibition of toilet graffiti in London showcasing 63 garnered on “the longest sober pub crawl” across the capital.
Sh!t Show, Khazi tells me by phone (keeping that identity shrouded), is the culmination of a lengthy love affair with what others might dismiss as idle scrawlings.
“I’ve had this idea for at least a decade,” he tells me. “The things I’ve found in the toilet, the expressions as I’m calling them now, I just always connected with them. There’s something quite romantic about them. They just never fail to make me laugh or kick off a chain of thought. So I sort of fell in love with the whole concept of it back then.
“Every door that has a mark on the back of, everything left is an invitation to converse.”
In the summer of 2022 Khazi embarked on his pub crawl, visiting the toilets of 250 venues right across London, camera in tow.
“A lot of what I found was absolute gold, in my opinion,” he says. “It fascinates me. What I found was a load of incredible messages that I couldn’t miss. I decided I needed to recreate a door with all of these remarks, the ones that really felt like they meant something. And create kind of an all-encompassing door that reflects our capital city.”
The idea was to create one single door covered with examples of the “expressions” he had come across on the journey. But rather than simply take the words and write them himself he decided “it needs to be the handwriting of whoever left that mark”. Thus began a long process of creating a process whereby photos are turned into vectors and then, via a technical “hybrid stencilling technique” which loses your correspondent but looks very impressive, is painted on to the door.
“It was so important that it was their handwriting,” says the artist. “I didn’t want to lose something. When it’s all my handwriting, something’s lost. The reason it was there in the first place wasn’t me. So what we’ve ended up with is a door that wholeheartedly reflects the nature of what I believe is a movement, a movement that hasn’t been celebrated yet.”
What, I ask, makes those comments which made it to the exhibition special? Was he looking for those which moved him, made him think, made him laugh?
“I think the key aspect, if I’m honest, is that I’m not looking for anything specific,” he says. “I am just the observer, I’m the person who’s just witnessing these things and I think it would be wrong for me to just be looking for funny ones. That’s not true to the movement, to the tradition of writing on the back of a toilet door. I was looking for pure expression. Because people often write the first thing that comes into their mind – so, for example, ‘Your ma drives a smart car around Leyton’. This just makes me think: who left that? I think you’ve got the full spectrum of emotions on the back of toilet doors.
“It’s kind of the original form of social media. It’s been going on for so, so long – people talking to each other anonymously. It’s quite special, really, and ultra-unique.”
A separate platform at the exhibition will have a toilet on it “so you can view it from a toilet, as you would naturally”. Meanwhile other pieces in the show include 63 individual canvases reflecting the graffiti’s messages, fibreglass pub signs and other sculptures and art, while the whole thing will be soundtracked by music created by Radiohead, Gaz Coombes and the Stranglers.
And London is only his first stop. “I’m moving on to other cities throughout the UK. I’m going to Paris soon, to do that walk. And what we’re gonna end up with is, especially with the international walks, one day, down the line, once you’ve got eight or 10 doors from different cultures, I think it’s then fascinating to be able to compare different cultures and different societies and have them all side-by-side.
“In my opinion, Karma Khazi is anyone. Anyone who’s ever written on the back of a door or anyone who is going to in future. And who knows? It might prompt a bigger movement.”
Sh!t Show takes place at 133 Bethnal Green Road, London E2 7DG from January 26-28