“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Whatever the reason, the collège communal of Saint-Gilles has declared that the penis mural will be withdrawn.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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.