Have you ever walked into a restroom at a bar and found yourself spending more time reading the graffiti on the walls than going to the bathroom? Not that tired, old "Call 555-1212 for a good time" stuff. Rather the "Jesus saves, but Esposito scores on the rebound" brand of comedy gold.
Or "My karma ran over your dogma."
You get the idea.
Some bars are more known for their pithy graffiti than others, and some even encourage it.
Take Room 434, 434 S. 2nd St., for example. It actually provides blackboards in the bathrooms, so the graffiti is an ever-changing work of art. Of course, the blackboards are in line with the school theme owner Kevin Sloan has created.
"We had decided to do it because, in essence, we were killing two birds with one stone," says Sloan. "When The Social was there, we'd end up with all sorts of graffiti. It never got out of a control, but it was a nuisance. We'd get out the scrub brush and paint, and do our best to take it off."
Says Sloan, "It's a logical part of the decor, and it's pretty fun just to see what the heck is gonna be on the board."
At other bars, the graffiti isn't so much officially sanctioned, but it's omnipresent, tolerated and even appreciated.
Take this gem, written on the towel dispenser at Palomino, 2491 S. Superior St. Some hipster had slapped on a sticker depicting a simple line-art drawing of a '70s era van with a luggage rack on top (picture the "A-Team" van in black and white). The caption, added later, was elegant in its simplicity:
"I'm goin' to Mexico, suckas!"
But Palomino owner Scott Johnson is sometimes, understandably, less pleased by the graffiti in his bars. He says the scribblings don't bother him -- he's even amused by them -- but destructive vandalism can add thousands of dollars annually to a bar owner's bills.
"If you're gonna write on the tile, that comes off," says Johnson. "But if you're carving into the walls, that's a different story. It gets annoying having to cover it up. People don't know how long we spend maintaining bathrooms, and people destroy stuff on a regular basis."
At his other bars, Hi-Hat and Comet, Johnson is forced to repaint and repair his bathroom at an astounding rate of up to once a week.
But at Fuel, 818 E. Center St., the non-destructive, artistic graffiti is actually appreciated, and it's only painted over twice a year.
"Fuel has this thing with guys who leave their mark, like train hobos," he says. "It's really cool, awesome graffiti."
Across the street from Palomino at Club Garibaldi, 2501 S. Superior St., owner Tag Grotelueschen says his bathrooms don't currently sport much graffiti. Why?
"We recently painted it."
He says the bar can't really stop this light-hearted vandalism, and they try to repaint every six months or so. But realistically, they get around it to annually.
"Generally, we paint it when it becomes an eyesore," he says.
Then there's the neighborhood tavern, Halliday's Lounge, 1729 N. Farwell Ave. Owner Rosemary Maniscalco says she makes a point to stay on top of the graffiti situation in her restrooms.
"Every now and then we have a problem with the graffiti in the stall in the men's room," says Maniscalco. But her cleaning man alerts her right away and tries to get rid of it.
"It cheapens the whole place," she says.
Maniscalco says the graffiti tends to accumulate more in the men's room, but it can appear in the ladies' room, too. "Sometimes it's sex related. Guys get a little horny when they're drinking."
Grotelueschen says he's not impressed with much of the graffiti, and he's never caught anyone in the act. "In general, it's pretty brainless, sophomoric humor," he says.
But one message did make Grotelueschen laugh: "We had a great one on our condom machine. It said 'Insert baby here for a refund.'"
Johnson's favorite graffiti is a recurring mark in the men's room at Palomino. For some reason, people keep "adjusting" an old-school painting of a deer.
"They're constantly drawing genitalia," says Johnson. "I don't know what it is with Wisconsin people and deer."
Sloan says his system lets him separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
"It's very well-rounded," he says. "We will get some that's very serious, giving people advice on how to live. Others are kind of lewd, that need to come off. It's pretty much the stuff that you'd get at any other bar, but the nice thing is either we can leave it there because it works -- or we use the eraser.
Finally, Maniscalco admits that the graffiti, clever or otherwise, just doesn't amuse her anymore.
"Maybe I'm too old," she says.
Obviously, most bar bathrooms have at least a little vandalism -- some better than others. And usually these urban poems don't last long, morphing from one drunken rambling to the next.
Compelling, childish, pithy, political or illegible, share your favorite bar graffiti using the Talkback feature below.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.