“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Whatever the reason, the collège communal of Saint-Gilles has declared that the penis mural will be withdrawn.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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.