The Grout Gatsby: UChicago’s notorious bathroom graffiti

“Editorial quality does not translate into permanence on the stall wall”

By Isaac Stein

At the University of Chicago, some institutions are timeless. The mythos of the University seal in the Reynolds Club. Scav. Milkshake Wednesdays at C-Shop. And, of course, graffiti in on-campus bathrooms.

Be it tasteless depictions of genitalia or clever wordplay on the phrase “grout” scrawled on the tiling of the Bartlett men’s room, the content of UChicago graffiti is far from uniform. However, editorial quality does not translate into permanence on the stall wall. Students may notice that as successive academic quarters and calendar years pass, the graffiti that they remember as existing in particular places may be painted over or whited out.

In order to better understand how this largely hidden process works, The Maroon interviewed Kevin Austin, the director of Building Services, a division of the University Facilities Services department. According to Austin, University janitors remove graffiti from both the interior and exterior of campus buildings five times per week, at a labor and materials cost that adds up to more than $15,000 per year, of which $6,000 is attributable to graffiti that is particularly hard to remove.

“Our janitorial company indicates they spend an hour or two daily on graffiti removal across campus, which results in an approximate daily cost of around $50, which includes the cost of labor and required cleaning products. If our decorators (painters) get involved, as they do for particularly difficult-to-remove graffiti, they estimate the average removal costs about $200 per occurrence. Decorators are engaged about 10 times per quarter for this task,” Austin wrote in an e-mail.

The technical process of removal varies based on the location of the graffiti—janitors use a multipurpose cleaner indoors, but may use a pressure washer on building exteriors. But the University follows a uniform protocol for receiving reports of on-campus graffiti, and removes all reported graffiti irrespective of its content.

“Instances of graffiti come to our attention in two ways: Our custodial staff discovers it during our daily interior building checks or it is reported by students, faculty, staff or visitors. Exterior graffiti reports follow that same pattern: It is spotted by our landscaping crews or reported to us. All graffiti is expected to be removed once discovered,” Austin said.

He also suggested that the frequency of on-campus graffiti is declining, and that it is not concentrated in or around any building in particular.

“While difficult to quantify, based on feedback from longtime staff members, there’s anecdotal suggestions that the frequency of occurrences has declined in recent years…. There is not a particular area that we would identify as a [graffiti] ‘hot spot.’”