“Sad”, “limp”, “depressing” and “cowed”: the unwanted genitalia popping up all over Brussels

The Manneken Pis, Brussels' most famous penis. Image: Pbrundel/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Whatever the reason, the collège communal of Saint-Gilles has declared that the penis mural will be withdrawn.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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To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.