For the last three weeks the residents of Belgian capital Brussels have been stalked by a series of graphic murals.
The image of a woman masturbating now dominates the Place Stéphanie, and a vast vagina has been spread across the Rue des Poissonniers. Meanwhile, an advertisement for home appliance company Zanussi has been corrupted into spelling the word “anus” above a visual representation of said orifice, and a colossal cock has inserted itself into Barrière de Saint-Gilles business district.
Ain’t life grand? Just think how far we’ve come from our Edwardian ancestors swooning over the flash of an ankle or the curve of a cravat and, here we are, a cock on every corner.
— Expats in Belgium (@ExpatBelgium) September 23, 2016
Unfortunately, not everyone is as gleeful about this as I am, and the erection of the penis mural has rubbed Brussels’ city authorities up the wrong way. Belgium politician Vincent Henderick moaned the penis was “inappropriate” and groaned that it “does not belong in the Barrière de Saint-Gilles”.
It is not clear if the penis is facing such stiff opposition due to its location opposite a Catholic institution. Or perhaps it’s the lack of aesthetic appeal as, in a startling echo of my formative sexual experiences, the penis mural has been described as “sad”, “limp”, “depressing” and “cowed”.
Whatever the reason, the collège communal of Saint-Gilles has declared that the penis mural will be withdrawn. This pronouncement offered relief to some local residents but inflamed others who have started a petition to “Sauvez le Penis”.
The petition creators argue that Brussels is a city in which “every type of creativity is important”. They go on to point out that the Saint-Gilles Schlong counteracts the commodification of “tourist friendly” street-art.
Anti-tourism sentiment isn’t new, especially in European cities where the impact of mass-tourism is starting to price locals out of the housing market and undermine the physical infrastructure.
Until now disgruntled city residents have restricted themselves to writing “fuck off tourists” in the loo of their favourite bars. The recent surge in graphic street art, however, suggests that patience is wearing thin. After all, it is one thing to complain about your neighbour putting their apartment on AirBnB, but it is quite another to drape every building in sight with giant genitals.
Local resident Paul Hallows points out that if there is a city capable of taking on multiple cocks, it would be Brussels. “Brussels is probably the only city on Earth that has at least three beloved statues of things urinating – the Mannekin Pis, the Jeanneke Pis and that statue of a dog doing its business near Dansaert,” explains Hallows.
“The giant wang mural at Barriere isn’t just something that lifts the spirits on a rainy day – a schoolboy’s notebook writ large – but arguably part of this city’s public art heritage. It’s madness to spend public money to get rid of it.”
Whether the murals are actually a protest against mass-tourism or an extension of Brussels’ passion for picturesque pissing remains up for debate. The shadowy puppet-master behind this penis has stayed anonymous.
Suspicion originally fell on prominent Belgian graffiti artist Vincent Glowinski (known as “Bonom”), who produced a very similar mural to the woman wanking in 2015. Glowinski has denied any connection with the attack of the 20 inch penis, telling the Radio Télévision Belge de la Communauté Française that, “It is not me of course and I do not want to be involved in this story.”
The question of who should be “involved” with depictions of (or actual) public nudity was hotly debated in 2014 when Munich introduced six “Urban Naked Zones”. These zones were designed to allow both Germans and tourists to enjoy naked sunbathing, without causing offense to their fellow city residents.
Journalist Feargus O’Sullivan reported on the Urban Naked Zones and pointed out that Germany has “a strong cultural tradition that seeks to escape artifice and the pressures of city life to return to something supposedly more natural. Seen in this light, stripping off in public is the voluntary removal of a heavy mask, a return to unvarnished honesty rather than some titter-worthy peek-a-boo.”
Is it possible that the giant genitals of Brussels represent a challenge to this “heavy mask”? The assumption in most countries is that nudity is automatically sexual. This can be seen in the problems women experience while trying to breastfeed, and the ongoing attempts by social media sites to clamp down on images of female nipples.
Despite being described as “sexually explicit” by the media, the penis, vagina and anus murals do not depict arousal. The penis is flaccid, the vagina is taut, the anus unlubed. By showing the residents of Brussels genitals in repose, the anonymous artist is challenging the way cities and their residents think about public nudity.
Although it does seem worth asking why Belgian politicians have fixated on the image of the cock. The vagina mural is not currently under threat and the woman masturbating seems set to chaff herself off that wall before a “Sauvez le Wanking Woman” petition is needed.
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