After traveling in Europe last summer, I was overwhelmed by the amount of penis graffiti I saw. Next to churches, on trash cans, on sacred sites. Penis, penis, penis. I deemed it “the ever-present penis graffiti.” In this post, I explore the lack of penis graffiti I witnessed in Southeast Asia and hypothesize why I didn’t see any. It is important to note that I give a simplistic answer to a topic that deserves a much more in-depth analysis.
On my recent trip to Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), I only saw one penis graffiti. A month and half into my trip I stumbled upon it in Pai, Thailand. It could also be that they existed, and I just didn’t see them. I mean, I’m not all people everywhere. However, if they did exist, they were so apparent as in Europe.
Southeast Asia isn’t best known for its graffiti and street art (I’m also not part of that community, but speaking as an outsider). Still, there is a scene. A lack of street art in general can’t explain the lack of penis graffiti, because that isn’t the case. I only saw one penis graffiti in four countries, but something tells me there’s more to the story.
In my previous post on penis graffiti, my analysis of its meaning hypothesized that although penis graffiti could be drawn by a bored teenager, its greater significance is worrisome. The Western culture, the penis is a symbol of dominance, power, and to some extent even violence. On the other hand, the vagina is typically seen as erotic and sacred (want to read AN ENTIRE BOOK about what penises mean in Western culture? I just came across this book. I can’t vouch for it, but I can say that if you’re interested in the topic it seems to be cover all the bases).
Traveling in Southeast Asia didn’t mean I didn’t see penises. Penises were part of religious sites and ethnography museums. But they weren’t outlined with spray paint with a clearly disruptive intent (as was the case when inserted between cries for Leonese independence).
What is the significance of the penis in Southeast Asian culture?
In Asian culture, the erect penis is said to be a symbol of good luck and fertility. In Bangkok, Thailand, there is a phallic symbol known as the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine, which is said to “endow good fortune” on anyone who comes into contact with it. In Indonesia they represent harmony (one tourist/travel writer didn’t much like those phallic carvings in her trip to Bali, and then someone else didn’t like that she didn’t like it) and Bhutan attracts tourists with its phallic images that are said to ward off evil and help fertility. There is even a penis-themed restaurant in South Korea, and if I thought I’d seen enough penises while backpacking I wonder how I’d feel if I actually went there.
So if the erect penis has a positive connotation, why wouldn’t it be drawn even more? Don’t we all need a little more good luck? I’d take luck over the dominance and violence of the Western penis.
In the book Aestheticizing Public Space: Street Visual Politics in East Asian Cities, Lu Pan writes, “graffiti and street art have personal and social connotations, reflecting the collective memories of a particular society.” Within that framework, graffiti and street art take elements that the people in a given society understand and relate to.
Reflecting upon my Spanish students in Ibiza, I recall they talked about penises constantly. It was used as an insult, a comeback and in casual speech. Even the Spanish language-including slang across Latin America- is inundated with versions of the word pene (penis) or bolas (balls) to playfully insult or degrade. So, wouldn’t it make sense there were so many penis graffiti around Spain? If its part of one’s daily speech, would graffiti be an extension of that, a personal and social connotation, as Lu Pan says?
Could we make this comparison with Southeast Asia? I am not familiar enough with Southeast Asian culture to understand if penis talk is part of their daily lives and linguistic patterns. Sadly, I can’t make the case that the penis is not part of their daily lives enough and for that reason they don’t draw it in all corners of their neighborhood.
But, there could be a hint at why it’s not around-if we consider penis graffiti as “vandalism.” According to the Bangkok-based street artist Foner in the short documentary Graffiti Asia, it’s more about graffiti than vandalism. “In Europe it’s way more aggressive,” he says, “here they don’t vandalize that much.” He adds, “Probably because they don’t get that angry at the system” (It is unclear what he is referring to by “the system”). If we hold what Froner says to be true, and if we assume penis graffiti, like the ones in Europe, to be acts of vandalism. That might explain why people don’t draw it; they don’t vandalize in general, and a penis is no exception.
There could be numerous underlying causes and dynamics I’m oblivious to that prevent penis graffiti from being drawn in public spaces. Maybe people have got more important things going on. Maybe spray paint is more difficult to find. Maybe people are busy working. Either way, I know that I’ve got another project to add to my list: in-depth interviews on the lack of penises.
There is something to be said about the stark difference between the penis graffiti and the way its drawn in Europe to the reverent and elaborate drawings in Bhutan. One feels slightly like an insult, meant to bother, while the other is of no comparison. It’s done craftily, respectfully, and with a completely different intent. Maybe there are enough sacred penises in temples and hilltop villages that there is no need for an absurd interpretation.
Do you know about penis graffiti in Southeast Asia? Do you know about its meaning in everyday life?
Featured photo: The T-shirt our waiter on Koh Phi Phi was wearing. I wasn’t sure how to describe it so I left it out of this post about T-shirts in Southeast Asia.