Don’t urinate

Urinate This picture was taken in Bundung in the West African country of The Gambia in March 2009, and is one of a series of such signs in this genre scattered around the urban sprawl of Banjul, Serrekunda, and Brikama, especially around places of public transport (garages), markets and other places where publics gather and transit (and occasionally also urinate). Signs such as these mark the thin line between public and private spaces. Painted on the outer wall of someone’s compound, this sign marks the boundary between the public and the private. The sign communicates that the wall does not belong to the public and is not to be used as a toilet.

In linguistic landscape terminology, it is a bottom-up sign, i.e. a sign author(is)ed by a private actor as opposed to public institutions such as the government, and NGOs. In terms used by Chris Stroud and Sibonile Mpendukana (2009), it is “signage of necessity” as opposed to “signage of luxury” – signage crafted with minimal material resources, unmonitored and unedited. It is painted in brushes of red paint applied directly on the white-painted wall, presumably without a predesigned sketch. Note that the text contains a crossed-out word (“ON”) and that it follows the brickwork of the wall with the cement functioning as lines and the bricks themselves as spacings. Only the last word (“HERE”) plunges under the cement lining, whether intended, or not, as a means of visual outcry underscoring the imperative modality of the message. The message is neither to be ignored, nor should it be taken lightly: the author – whoever it is – is serious! At the same time, the author is politely asking (“PLEASE”) for the public’s cooperation and understanding.

The text is accompanied with a graphic line-drawing of an obviously male person with spiky hair and a pointed nose, spraying his urine on the wall. The drawing in itself does not contain a negation, but is otherwise fairly straightforward in its denotation. The graphic image attracts attention to the sign but also discloses the message to non-literates. Even if you cannot read – as is the case for a fairly large section of the population, also in urban Gambia – the drawing suggests rather clearly what it is that you cannot do here. The author of the sign has rendered this message in English and in drawing, thereby addressing the whole population, those that can read (English) and those that cannot.

© Kasper Juffermans