Ian MacAllen has a Tumblr page called Toilets of New York, but it might be more accurate to call it Bar Bathrooms of Brooklyn. Every image he's uploaded, since December, has come from an alcohol establishment, and many-if-not-most have been located in Williamsburg or Bushwick. "It's not like I'm going into the Barnes and Noble and saying, Hey, where's the bathroom," he says.
The 31-year-old MacAllen, who lives in East Williamsburg and works as a graphic designer, conceived the project during one of nature's calls last summer. He realized that, in many of the bathrooms in his favorite haunts, someone had clearly tried to "create an experience." Since then, MacAllen says he's noticed three main "genres" of bathrooms: the neutral white- or black-tile bathroom, the heavily graffitied bathroom, and the "well-curated bathroom."
"I've never gone to a place specifically to get pictures of the bathroom," says MacAllen, whose efforts recently caught the attention of the New York Observer. "I have gone to the bathroom once I'm at a place thinking, eh, maybe this would be an interesting bathroom."
Do you photograph every toilet you visit or does it have to meet a certain criteria?
I prefer single-toilet bathrooms. Simply because it's less creepy to be the only person in the bathroom taking pictures of the toilet, than having other people around while you're trying to be like, Hey guys I want to take a picture of this toilet.
When you walk in, how are you evaluating a bathroom?
Certainly the biggest thing you can't convey at all in a photograph is aroma. You can look at some of those pictures and say that bathroom definitely is not going to smell very good if you're there in real life.
The second thing is, is it clean. Even if it's heavily graffitied bathroom, that doesn't necessarily mean it's dirty. In fact, some of those graffitied bathrooms are much cleaner than the plainer basic white-tile bathrooms.
Artistically, I'm looking and saying, is this an interesting experience. Is there a narrative here that can be told? I like to see someone having chosen objects and wallpapers and knick-knacks that represent them and the location itself.
Who are the people who spend so much time graffiting public bathrooms? You never catch anyone in the act.
The community that uses a particular location is participating in an ongoing dialogue.
I did see one bathroom, I believe it's called the Gotham City Bar [ed: Gotham City Lounge] — a comic-book inspired science-fiction inspired bar in the middle of Bushwick, where the entire place is covered in memorabilia from comic books — and in the bathroom they have a big note that says: This is not a bathroom that tolerates graffiti, and if you're caught you'll be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There was no graffiti in there. I think once you have a little bit of it in a bathroom, it's a sign that it's encouraged.
This may be a personal question, but do you have a favorite public toilet?
I recently hit the 50 toilet mark. There was a bathroom at a bar, Welcome to the Johnson, which I knew was heavily graffitied, and I knew I wanted that photo as the 50th. So for that week, as I was approaching the 50th toilet, I was holding back, thinking, is this one going to be good enough? I'd be passing through a place saying, well, I'll take the photo, but it's not a 50th-toilet-worthy photo.
Ever seen one just too disgusting to photograph?
I have been in toilets that I've compared to the scene in "Trainspotting" where Renton's coming off heroin, and he goes into the bathroom and it says, "The Worst Toilet in Scotland." There have been moments like that, but not since I started shooting.
I'm going to immediately regret asking this, but what do you hope viewers get out of your Tumblr page on New York toilets?
I hope they have a new appreciation for the place they're using the facilities. There are probably a bunch of people who design these bathrooms and are never going to get the recognition they deserve. If it inspires some other people to take more time, a little more care, building a more interesting bathroom in their establishment, I think that would be a worthwhile result.
All photos courtesy of Ian MacAllen.