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Flush with creativity

October 24, 2002|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

At first glance, Insomnia is just another raggedy-casual coffee shop in the Fairfax-Melrose neighborhood, a place where regulars put in half-day shifts writing screenplays on battered velour couches. But only insiders know that the 13-year-old establishment also is a leader in what the art world calls "latrinalia -- yes, toilet art.

Framed by a thrift-store armchair and a faux Venetian mirror, the mix of commissioned and ad-lib art in the unisex loo is worth seeing. A starry-night mural on the ceiling melts down the walls. A bearded, mustachioed reproduction of Mona Lisa stuck high up in a corner casts a suspicious glance. Hundreds of graffiti souvenirs -- witty, political, silly -- leap from the walls.

Compared with the bathroom doodling in clubs and bars, caffeine-fueled graffiti is contemplative rather than salacious, ironic rather than pugnacious. "WW III? Blame yourself! I voted for Gore," barks an entry. One note cheekily suggests, "For a good time, call 1-800-ANARCHY." (I did, and reached an art gallery.)

Latrinalia flourishes wherever the public, well, goes. It remains decidedly lowbrow, largely anonymous and seldom lasts longer than the few weeks between paint jobs.

Yet its power to fascinate cannot be denied. At Insomnia and Cafe Luna Sol, a co-op restaurant-cum-performance space, customers have been known to park themselves in the restroom for hours. "You get a feel for what kind of place it is from the art in the bathroom," says Obi-I, a founding member of Cafe Luna Sol.

While chains such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf generally keep their bathrooms squeaky clean, offbeat establishments are more likely to accommodate artistic customers.

When Insomnia owner Lucia Yi commissioned the bathroom mural two years ago, she figured it would discourage customers from doodling on the walls. Instead, she found, art begot more art. There are serious musings: "The movie industry couldn't be more racist if it was their mission statement to promote separatism whenever and wherever possible." There are political proclamations from the right ("Big Business rules, the environment sucks!"), the left ("Osama bin Laden is a conservative"), and the left field ("Morse code forever!"). There are sincere admissions ("I enjoy pornography") and the occasional tongue-in-cheek personal plug (" your new Jesus").

There are drawings, too, including a subversive Powerfpuff girl sporting an A for "anarchist" on her pinafore. And they may all disappear overnight.

Every few months, Cafe Luna Sol obliterates its toilet gallery with a fresh coat of paint. "We try to maintain some structure without making it too structured," says Obi-I. There are, however, a few unwritten rules. Spray painting is not cool, nor is scribbling over other people's work. Tortured poetry and gang-style writing are not tolerated. Otherwise the field is wide open to all prophets and poets. The current exhibit at Cafe Luna Sol -- including a Keith Haring-esque cat in silver paint -- is 2 months old and growing. Access to it, and any other coffee shop latrinalia, is free of charge, but you would be wise to invest in several cups of coffee. It will provide you with a legitimate excuse to visit the bathroom.


Skip to these loos

Insomnia Cafe: 7286 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-4943, open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day. Mural art and lots of graffiti in the unisex bathroom.

Cafe Luna Sol: 2501 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 380-4754, open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Mondays-Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays. Drawings and graffiti in the unisex bathroom.

Mani's Bakery and Cafe: 2507 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-7700, open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. The women's bathroom is graffiti-free but features a campy mural landscape in lollipop pastels, complete with pink sunset and a garland of hibiscus.

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