Shittin' On 'Em: Duane 'Shorty' Davis uses toilets to protest injustice

Existing somewhere between the readymades of Duchamp and Rauschenberg’s combines and collages, activist Duane “Shorty” Davis uses new and discarded toilets, along with tape, super glue, newspaper, photos, and other found paper scraps to construct caustic protest art. One of his toilets, ‘America’s Future with O’Malley,’ which highlights the effects of former Baltimore mayor and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s policies like “zero tolerance,” is currently on display at the Creative Alliance as part of its salon-style exhibition, “The Big Show.”

“I use the toilet because the toilet is like, a common denominator,” Davis says, “it doesn’t care if you’re black, white, straight, or gay, it takes your shit every day.”

‘America’s Future with O’Malley’ is completely covered in text and images—of the former governor and current presidential hopeful, newspaper headlines surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, loaded phrases such as “#BaltimoreUprising” and “Occupy the courts,” and photos of a number of the city’s usual suspects including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Barbara Mikulski, and former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts. Inside of the bowl are a few carefully selected, particularly ridiculous images of O’Malley, including one where he’s giving a thumbs-up and grinning—he looks like some cartoon beaver character or something. It is almost dead center in the bowl.

“See, you open the toilet and see his face and associate it with a turd,” Davis says.

Placed next to the toilet are two toys—a small plastic toilet that exposes an anthropomorphic pile of poo when you open the lid, and a bullhorn that says “bullshit” on the side of it—and, lying down, an American flag.

“Would you rather hold the flag or the toilet?” Davis asks.

I. “I’m not the first dog that’s shitted on your lawn.” -Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Dog Shit’

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted ‘Fountain,’ a urinal signed by “R. Mutt,” to New York’s first annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, whose rules simply said that any piece of art would be accepted if the artist paid a fee. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ an affront to respectability and “good taste,” was rejected, though it had the larger effect of further demystifying art, kicking off the avant-garde, and challenging the establishment’s snooty attitudes. Here in Baltimore, the toilet has also played a key role in grimy, subversive art: John Waters ended his very first short film, 1964’s “Hag In a Black Leather Jacket,” with the words “The End” on toilet paper being flushed down the toilet; and a famous photo of Baltimore boy Frank Zappa naked, sitting on the toilet, has hung in record stores, head shops, and cool kids’ dorm rooms for decades. Davis’ toilet art began back in 2006 as part of a larger project, including a movie, that took on the United States’ racism.

“Plain and simple, [my art] is about racism in America,” Davis says, “it’s about black-on-black crime, it’s about everything that’s going on now.”

Davis’ work also continues a long tradition of joke-telling where points are often made cogently, if indelicately. Tellingly, among a cluster of buttons on Davis’ hat is one of Def Comedy Jam legend Eddie Griffin and Davis’ humor (the slogan for Davis’ catering service is “His Meats Taste Good In Your Mouth!”) recalls the party-record playfulness of Redd Foxx and Rudy Ray Moore, along with the seriousness underlying the randy, personal-is-political real talk of Richard Pryor.

II. “Where there is a stink of shit there is a smell of being.” -Antonin Artaud, “The Pursuit of Fecality”

Davis’ toilet collages feel like a very contemporary kind of political satire, for an era in which constant media attention and obsessive polling leaves politicians desperate. This means they do dumb-assed things of their own volition in public almost constantly, which means there’s no need to make O’Malley look grotesque, really. The guitar-playing, dadbod-sexy politician can look dumb all by himself. So, Davis collects the most damning images and puts them on the toilet: O’Malley standing next to a young black boy who doesn’t look all that happy to be there whereas O’Malley seems very, very happy to get a photo op with a black person; O’Malley mid-holler, his hand to his ear; O’Malley giving an obviously much-practiced politician grin which in this context has an “American Psycho” quality to it; O’Malley dressed up like a War of 1812 general—just a fucking crazy thing for a grown-ass man to do.

The toilet’s collage counters O’Malley’s absurdity as well. A photo of Martin Luther King Jr. sits below Barbara Mikulski, and there’s an image from a civil rights march near  the phrase, “Police brutality police bill of rights equals dead man walking.” And to anybody aware of local activism, the font used on the police brutality bill piece of the collage immediately recalls the signs used during West Wednesdays, an ongoing protest movement that seeks to remind people of the murder of Tyrone West in police custody on July 18, 2013. A “Stop murder by police” flier from the uprising is stuck to the back of the toilet. Nearby, a sign that reads “effects of Mayor O’Malley’s zero tolerance policing,” with arrows pointing in different directions,  made an appearance in Federal Hill at a die-in following O’Malley’s announcement that he was running for president back in May.

III. “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe. I was not offended, for I knew I had to rise above it all or drown in my own shit.” -George Clinton, ‘Maggot Brain’

In February 2011, Davis placed a toilet in front of the Baltimore County courthouse in Towson. It was treated as a bomb threat and the bomb squad was called in and streets surrounding the courthouse were closed down. There is an incredibly absurd photo of somebody in one of those bulky bomb squad outfits approaching the toilet to dismantle it. Bomb-sniffing dogs and a robot were also used. The toilet did have a cellphone with cartoon eyes and another electronic device attached to it, which arguably made it more ominous than Davis’ other toilets, but otherwise this was just another toilet, dropped off by Shorty.

As a result of his high-profile protest, Davis was charged with two bomb-related charges and his truck, computer, hard drives, and 13 “storyboards”—collagelike poster-board art about a number of Baltimore officials and political issues—were seized. “[They] didn’t lock me up for what I put in front of Congressman Cummings’ office, [they] didn’t lock me up for what I put in front of the Basilica, [they] didn’t lock me up when I put one up in front of parole and probation, I put up like 12 in front of City Hall. The one in Towson was retaliation,” Davis says.

That day, Davis certainly made government officials look foolish and it garnered him a great deal of attention (he told the Baltimore Sun he left the toilets there because politicians treat Baltimore’s citizens like “doo-doo”) and it seems like he was punished more for being a nuisance than being a terrorist. By 2011, he’d been leaving the toilets around for five years: “If you knew this back [then] why you say I’m a terrorist and all this bullshit?”

Davis was found not guilty on all charges. His belongings, gathered as evidence that he was a “terrorist,” were never returned to him, something he takes issue with and continues to hound local and federal officials about. In 2013, on the second anniversary of the Towson toilet fiasco, Davis brought a small toilet, like the one that sits with his toilet at the Creative Alliance, to the courthouse and left it there: “How many people can say they beat O’Malley in court and beat him with a toilet?”

That same year, Davis ran for lieutenant governor.

IV. “I don’t care how strong you are, you can’t stand having to smell a whole cell row of defecation.” -Malcolm X, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”

Davis gets toilets from friends and acquaintances who like his “advocacy,” he says, though he often finds toilets sitting around on the side of the road. He takes them home and cleans them up. “Ain’t nothing but some soap, some water, some bleach, and a hose, flip them over and dry them off,” Davis says.

Next to Davis’ toilet at “The Big Show” is a toilet by activist Danielle Denise Beane Clayton titled, ‘Tales From The Trenches.’ Spray-painted red, green, and yellow, it is less busy than Davis’ work—though no less vitriolic. In the bowl, there’s a copy of the Constitution, and thoughtfully placed around the toilet are a series of phrases including “thousands killed by police nationwide” and, on the front of the toilet lid, “hope.”

“I’m trying to encourage other people to put their issues on the toilet,” Davis says.

He plans to take his toilet to Philadelphia and New York and also to continue leaving them around town. “I don’t need a million people to march,” Davis says. His vision is hundreds of toilets made by hundreds of people left all over the city, forcing politicians to confront their bullshit.

“Jesus had a cross, Martin had a dream, Malcolm got a gun, Shorty got a toilet, but we all have our shit to deal with,” Davis says, “This [toilet] is my cross.” 

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