“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Whatever the reason, the collège communal of Saint-Gilles has declared that the penis mural will be withdrawn.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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Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.