After college, Caitlin Cook happened upon a piece of bathroom graffiti at a dive bar that said, “Writing on toilet walls is neither for critical acclaim nor financial reward. It is the purest form of art. Discuss.”
As an art history major, Cook “thought it was such an intriguing way to think about bathroom graffiti from an art historical lens.” This inspired the Los Angeles native-turned-Bed-Stuy resident’s search for quotes scrawled upon bathroom walls. After about five years of photographing them, she decided to write them into a song, which elicited such a positive response, that she turned them into a musical.
Her one-woman show, “The Writing on the Stall,” set in the bathroom of a dive bar, which she has already performed at venues and festivals around the world, will come to the Soho Playhouse from Sept. 6 through the 23.
Its music–based on her decade-long quest for source material–takes on topics such as the difference between graffiti found in men’s versus women’s stalls, the more “political” sentiments uncovered in gender-neutral stalls, confessions that are written on the walls as well as conversations that are sparked amongst strangers.
There is one particular exchange that has stayed with her. “Someone had written, ‘Plant your own garden, decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers,’” she recalled.
“And then, underneath it, someone had written, ‘F—k off. They should bring you flowers.’ And I love that both things can be true.”
When did you know you wanted to pursue musical comedy?
I’ve always done musical comedy and my mom says I started singing before I could talk. And I noticed very early on that if I sang something funny, people paid a little bit more attention. This included when I would start performing at bars around the city, where you’re sort of background music and people would tune in when you sang something funny. And it was really fun to get a laugh. I also was a musical theater kid and my favorite parts were always the ones that made people laugh. So I started to get into standup comedy and sketch comedy.
How did the idea to use the writing on bathroom stall walls come about?
I studied art history in undergrad and got very interested in bathroom graffiti. I got a little tired of how pretentious the art history world can be. And I saw someone write on a bathroom stall, “Writing on toilet walls is neither for critical acclaim nor financial reward. It is the purest form of art. Discuss.” I thought it was such an intriguing way to think about bathroom graffiti from an art historical lens. And I started photographing bathroom graffiti everywhere. Then, about five years ago, I was doing a lot of musical comedy and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if some of these things I’ve seen written on bathroom walls were lyrics?” So I wrote one song where all of the lyrics were from bathroom graffiti that I’d been photographing and did a show where I had the photos I’d taken of the graffiti projected behind me as I sang. And it got such a wild response. Everyone loved it. And so I thought, “I could probably write a whole musical of these.”
Where are the best places to find bathroom graffiti in New York?
Anywhere you can find a dive bar, there’s gonna be usually a piece of bathroom graffiti. I typically love to go to Cobra Club in Bushwick and Sharlene’s in Park Slope, Prospect Heights area. Hank’s Saloon used to be really great, but it shut down a couple of years ago. I just found some at Jimmy’s Corner in Midtown. Really any sort of artsy, divey bar is gonna have some great bathroom graffiti most of the time.
Tell us about the difference between the graffiti in men’s versus women’s stalls?
That’s so funny you asked. I currently have a reel blowing up right now about this. It just hit 5.6 million views, which is wild. I have all these people in my comments section just debating the difference between men and women’s bathroom graffiti, which is so funny. There’s such a range, but for the most part, over the decade I’ve been photographing bathroom graffiti, I see a lot of really uplifting, empowering, beautiful things that women write to each other. Like “You got this,” “You go girl,” “Just breathe,” “Leave him, it’s ok.” And then in men’s stalls, there’s some beautifully illustrated penises.
What about gender-neutral bathrooms? I know you have a reel about those as well.
Yeah, I do. It’s such a range in there too. There’s both the empowering stuff and illustrated penises. But there’s also just a lot more absurdist and political bathroom graffiti. I saw one the other day in a gender-neutral stall that said, “More people should be named Luisa.” It just makes me think, “Who wrote that? Were they named Luisa? Were they in love with someone named Luisa? What is their story?”
Is the show really set in the bathroom of a dive bar?
Yeah, it is. So there’s literally a toilet on stage. I treat the audience like we are women bonding in a bathroom, not that you have to be a woman to come to the show, but just that’s the vibe. The audience becomes my confidant and I sort of bring them into this world of gossip and sharing stories and getting down to the nitty-gritty of getting to know someone. Kind of like how we bond in bathroom lines and how many “Ashleys from the bathroom” I have stored in my phone.
You’ve performed versions of the show at different venues and festivals around the world. What has the reception been like?
I’ve had such a wonderful reception from various audiences. I took this show to the Edinburgh Fringe festival. I’ve done it in the U.K., in L.A., in the Midwest. I’ve done parts of it in Australia. And I think across the board, people are excited to connect. We live in a very divisive world these days and there’s something about just putting all of that aside and bonding with a random stranger, whether you’re writing something on a wall or meeting them in a bathroom line.
Tell us about some of the confessions you’ve found.
I’ve found such great confessions. There’s a whole song of them. This show in general is very confessional. Women go in groups to the bathroom to gossip and confess things and it feels like a space for that. And I’ve seen a lot of people just writing secrets on bathroom walls and confessing something, which can be something as simple as “I’m sleeping with this person” or “I don’t like Karen.” Recently, I saw, “Up until recently, I didn’t know that Stevie Wonder was blind. I thought glasses were just his thing.”
For more information, visit www.thecaitlincook.com
“There’s such a range, but for the most part, over the decade I’ve been photographing bathroom graffiti, I see a lot of really uplifting, empowering, beautiful things that women write to each other. Like ‘You got this,’ ‘You go girl,’ ‘Just breathe,’ ‘Leave him, it’s ok.”’And then in men’s stalls, there’s some beautifully illustrated penises.” Caitlin Cook, “The Writing on the Stall.”