marking territory

There’s a penis carved into the sidewalk on the corner. There’s another one carved into the sidewalk on the path between the childcare centre and the student residences at the university. Last summer I followed a line of orange spray paint to another one – this one gigantic – painted on the walking trail towards the junior high. It’s perhaps slightly better than the “nigger” that was sprayed in that exact spot two years ago, but in fluorescent orange, it certainly makes a statement. And on the weekend, during a walk in the crisp cold of a January afternoon, I discovered another giant penis stomped into the ice and snow of our local pond.

Pond penis. Can you see it?

Pond penis. Can you see it?

I can’t quite figure out why it’s so entertaining to draw penises – or is that penii? What makes this such a great activity that it needs to be repeated and repeated and repeated? Over and over and over again?

Several years ago, when we still lived in a housing co-op in Vancouver, a bunch of teenagers picked up sidewalk chalk left behind by toddlers and drew rainbow-coloured penises all over the open square where the little ones played all day. A high school teacher resident washed it all down, counseling the teenagers that they were welcome to draw the on their own books and binders, but that public space was just that – public – and it wasn’t open for penises.

What’s so special about a penis that people need to draw it on almost any surface they can find?

I can appreciate that it might be nice to celebrate one’s embodiment, to acknowledge the weight, size and feel of a body part that, at a certain point starts to act of its own accord, a body part that has a voice and agency of its own. In this form, perhaps the penis draw-er is nothing more than a ventriloquist, an amanuensis speaking for a part that otherwise has no public voice?

But is that truly the case, or is there more to this act of marking territory?

It’s one thing to scratch your name into wet concrete. Or to put your hand prints there. It’s satisfying to say “hey, I was here” and to know that your fingerprint is forever preserved in mud. After all, mud is part of how fingerprinting was discovered. But it’s something else entirely to scratch a penis into concrete. There’s no sense of “I was here” there. This isn’t a fingerprint. It’s a penis.

And so I’m curious why it’s so fascinating. What makes this such an amazingly hilarious thing to do? Why do it? I just don’t get it. Along the various walking trails and on the sides of buildings, I see faded penii, their voices and stories disappearing with age. And I wonder what purpose they serve. What stories of belonging does a spray painted penis tell? Anyone?

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