Mens bathroom at Proofs bathroom at Proof Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Some people are just plain put off by the sight of God with a raging erection.

When Sax, a lounge and restaurant in downtown D.C., held its splashy opening party this past spring, some pretty striking artwork debuted. Murals in the stairways depicted various political and religious figures in precarious situations: priests engaging in ungodly acts with young boys, presidents carousing with harlots. One image showed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas weighing his ample manhood on the scales of justice. To the side, a red can of soda stood in obvious reference to certain subjects last discussed during Thomas’ confirmation hearings.

The pièce de résistance: a parody of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, featuring Our Heavenly Father sporting some hefty wood under his divine robe. “Michelangelo’s God is a sexy old man,” artist Balage Balogh, the creator of the scandalous acrylics, said at the time. “He’s surrounded by all these younger angels….I played on the same idea, but accentuating the sexuality of it and simply giving him an erection just to give it a big, big, um, tongue-in-cheek point.”

The proprietors of the place had publicized these paintings as a “catalyst for forbidden dialogue in an otherwise conservative town.” It certainly got people talking—though not necessarily in a good way. Within weeks, management had covered up those very conversation catalysts.

Some might conclude from the incident that there’s no market for filth in a nice downtown restaurant. They’d be wrong. Plenty of other white-tablecloth joints are offering titillation and trash to D.C.’s well-heeled diners. But they’re doing it in the restroom.

Like a tour of Washington’s marble monuments, an amble through the capital’s lurid bathrooms might begin with Lincoln—the restaurant, not the memorial.

Last spring, before opening his presidential-themed eatery, owner Alan Popovsky took the online news service Dining Bisnow on a video tour of the ornate Vermont Avenue NW establishment. The videographer spent an awful lot of time in the bathrooms.

First up: the ladies’ room, decorated with shiny stenciled patterns and a number of illusory paintings, some depicting friends of both Popovsky and Maggie O’Neill, the artist who designed the restaurant, bathrooms and all. The men’s room, meanwhile, is awash in innuendo. Old hand-crank drills and other workman’s tools are framed on the walls. If you don’t immediately get the joke, look back at the slogan above the door: “Keep Your Tools Clean.”

Tools also play a background role in the various glossy portraits mounted above the toilets. “We have different models working with the tools,” Popovsky explains. One is a close-up of a woman’s bare midriff. She’s wearing only lacy underwear and a thick steely chain hooked around her waist. Another features a buxom, curly-haired blonde in a black bustier and top hat crouching spread-eagle while she clutches the heel and leg of another gal seen only below the waist, wearing knee-high fishnet stockings. One well-manicured hand rests on the disembodied dame’s upper thigh; the other hand disappears into the shady crevasse between her crossed legs. “I think guys are going to really enjoy it,” says Popovsky.

You’d get the same vibe from making a pit stop at similarly upscale places like Penn Quarter’s wine-centric Proof (its men’s lavatory theme includes photos of women’s rear ends) or the Logan Circle tapas titan Estadio (shirtless soccer players in the ladies’ room). And it’s just as pronounced when you go a step down the price scale to Thunder Burger, the Georgetown restaurant known for its wild-game specials. In the men’s room, you find a large mural of a playing card, the queen of hearts. The two cartoonish women depicted therein are entirely nude, save for the bright red flowers protruding from their nether regions.

“I feel that it’s the one area that most restaurateurs ignore because they think a bathroom is a bathroom. It just needs to be acceptable and clean. I find those bathrooms a bit boring,” says Thunder Burger co-owner H. Ben Kirane, also proprietor of the more upscale Spanish tapas restaurant Bodega, located just to the west on M Street NW. “My idea is, why should a trip to the bathroom be a boring experience when a little creativity can make for an interesting and memorable experience?”

Kirane’s bathrooms at Bodega feature a unisex common area. The décor reflects this. “We have a poster of flamenco dancers, male and female,” he explains. “She’s basically sitting on his lap in fishnet stockings. We cropped the picture so you can just see the legs.”

If the coed vibe in the bathroom is at all awkward, Kirane says the intimate image is quite the ice breaker. “I think it does encourage socializing and flirting, which is one of the reasons people go out in the first place,” he says.

Kirane explains the more overt imagery in the restroom is simply an extension of a subtler sensuality underlining the décor of the entire restaurant, what with its curvy chairs and curtains patterned like fishnet stockings. “It does look a little bit like a whore house,” he admits. “But it is not a whore house. Many people think it is sexy, but they don’t know why.”

(On occasion, the overall sexy vibe has apparently inspired actual sexiness. “We’ve had one or two incidents in the past where a couple went to the bathroom to have sex,” Kirane says. “Did that picture contribute to that? I don’t know. Maybe they were just drunk and they figured, in a unisex bathroom, no one would notice…The manager got involved and gave them a hard time, so they left.”)

Meantime, intentionally grungier joints aren’t abandoning their smut just because the swells are now partaking. At Trusty’s, the filling-station-themed tavern and grill in Capitol Hill, for instance, visitors to the men’s room are greeted by a voluptuous redhead with green eyes wearing black boots and clutching a big, long wrench. Her light blue shirt is completely unbuttoned, revealing ample décolletage and a dark thicket below her belly button. She is the work of prolific local bar artist Lee T. Wheeler. And she’s positioned right above the porcelain pot. Her come-hither stare is unflinching to the last drop.

“The comments are just usually, ‘What are you doing with a painting of my wife-slash-girlfriend,’” says Trusty’s manager Adam Maradian. “It was funnier five years ago.” But that was before the city’s bathroom art got undressed.

Smutty or not, restrooms are a point of differentiation between competitors in a ferocious industry. “At this point, I sort of feel like we have some pressure, as much internal as external, with any restaurant we do, to have the bathrooms be a talking point,” says Proof owner Mark Kuller.

Competitive bathroom design, at least in the District, is a phenomenon of the past five years or so, says architect Griz Dwight, who is responsible for the décor of top eateries including Fiola, Proof, and Estadio. He’s also behind PS7s, where the restrooms feature one-way mirrors allowing nose-powdering voyeurs to see out into the dining room, but not vice versa. “It’s the idea of doing something different,” says Dwight. “I don’t want to say it’s a gimmick. It’s adding another layer of interest.”

Dwight attributes the prevailing interest in bathrooms to a sort of marketing strategy. “I find that restaurants really need a couple of talking points. They need a couple of cool things about them. One person will say, ‘Have you been to that restaurant with the really great bar?’ And somebody else will say, ‘No, but I went to this restaurant the other day with these really cool bathrooms.’ And they could be talking about the same place. It’s just different things mean different things to different people.”

The bathroom boom, Dwight suggests, is a lot less pricey than other newly ornate aspects of modern restaurant design. “We try to be clever with them but not overly expensive,” he says.

Enter the Proof girl.

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Kuller’s Penn Quarter eatery is known for many things, including its prodigious wine list. Visiting the john is a pretty big hit, too. “Guys come into these bathrooms here, and they go, ‘Oh, I love your bathrooms.’ They go back to the table, they start talking about it. Other guys go, ‘Oh, I want to see it.’”

What they’re talking about is the beautiful brunette whose image hangs above both urinals. In each shot, she is seen from behind. In fact, if you step up to one of these urinals, her buttocks appear right in your face as you try to pee. Along the opposite wall, where the sink is, the lengthy image of another unclothed lass is embedded right into the wall. Look down to the right below her bare breast, if you can, and you’ll eventually find the faucet.

How Kuller found his passion for erotic bathroom art is actually sort of a love story. “When I was practicing law, we would do a Christmas dinner in New York, and for many years we did it at the old Montrachet restaurant,” he recalls. “It was a very intimate restaurant. The men’s room was tiny. You walked in, there was this little sink on the side and a towel bowl. That was it.”

Well, not entirely it. “Above the toilet, they had a photograph by Laurence Sackman and it was of a woman lying face-down on a bed with covers sort of up to her thighs and her butt was a little bit up in the air, and it was incredibly…hot,” Kuller says. “So you would go into this bathroom—usually, by the time I got there, I was drunk—and you’d be mesmerized by this photo.”

Kuller eventually found his own copy of the portrait at a discount poster shop in Rehoboth Beach and put it up in his bathroom at home. The photo later took on greater significance when Kuller’s general manager, Michael James, came over to his house one day. At some point, James walked into the bathroom and noticed the Sackman photo. “He looks and says, ‘I have this in my house also!’” recalls Kuller.

When Kuller decided to open Proof, which debuted in 2007, he wanted to do some sort of homage to his beloved Montrachet restroom. “I wasn’t really doing anything other than taking something that I always enjoyed when I went to a restaurant and figured other men would enjoy it at this restaurant,” he says. “But I didn’t want to copy them, so I didn’t want to have the same photo.” He spent hours searching for a comparable backside to display. Eventually, he came across the works of photographer Christian Coigny. Two “beautiful shots” caught his eye: one bare-assed beauty standing upright and another lying on a bed. Now both butts hover over the flushers at Proof. (The leggy lady wallpapered, at the suggestion of Kuller’s architect, Griz Dwight, along the opposite side of the room, is originally the work of some anonymous artist, Kuller notes.)

Contacted for comment, photographer Coigny says the model now turning her back to countless male patrons at Proof is an old friend that he hasn’t seen in years. He also says he takes no offense in finding out that his precious works of art now inhabit the same general ecosystem as air fresheners and urinal cakes. In an email from his home in Switzerland, the photographer writes, “What people do with my photos is my smallest concern as long as they are considered and looked at.”

The photographer will be happy to know that his portraits draw stares from more than just leering men. “Women would go in there and bitch,” Kuller says, “because their guy friends or husbands would come back and go, ‘Oh my god, do you have pictures in your room?’”

The ladies’ room at Proof, it turns out, is not quite as racy as the men’s side. The chamber is bathed in hot pink in tribute to Kuller’s daughter’s room at home, though he did jazz things up a bit. Look closely at the shiny wallpaper and you’ll see tiny fishnet stockings in the pattern. In some ways, Kuller may have wished he simply stuck up nudes in both bathrooms. With its original stainless-steel touches and fancy Italian Bisazza tile, he notes, the ladies’ lavatory “cost way more money than the men’s room.” (For a brief time after opening, management offered tours of the men’s room for interested women.)

For some patrons, however, the nudes hold greater value. One customer, in particular, became a little too possessive of Coigny’s handiwork. One night, Proof hosted a large dinner party from the French embassy. After their meal, Kuller recalls, the group headed over to the restaurant bar to continue their revelry. Later, the manager, James, spotted one of the male embassy staffers sneaking out the back door with one of the framed nudes from the restroom. James chased after him, shouting, “I know who you are!” The next morning, the manager called the embassy and threatened to contact authorities if the provocative photo was not promptly returned. Later that day, Kuller says, the apologetic thief sheepishly returned the goods.

For his next restaurant, Kuller tried to better bridge the gender gap with his restroom designs. “When we opened Estadio, my feeling was I wanted to do something that addressed all the bitching I got from the women about unfair treatment,” he says. That olive branch arrived in the form of shirtless soccer players—true to the restaurant’s Spanish theme—displayed in the ladies’ room. “My wife is, like, you have to put up [Cristiano] Ronaldo,” he says.

At least one other man’s wife approves: “More than a little surprised to see Cristiano Ronaldo occupying the same space with me while I was attending to personal business,” reports Estadio patron Adriana Thelkeld. “In a shirtless and sweaty pose, Christiano had my husband waiting a little longer at our table for my return while I admired the artwork!”

Still, it remains a controversial call. “Of course, no one’s ever happy because, you know, I put up Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s widely regarded as the hottest guy in soccer, and he plays for, obviously, Real Madrid. But we’ve had women writing on Yelp, ‘He’s Portugese—not Spanish.’ It’s unbelievable.”

Washington’s monuments can tell you a lot about how Americans see themselves: The old marble ones, with their national self-glorification; the Vietnam Veterans memorial, with its quiet honoring of the common GI. By the same token, spending too much time in the city’s smutty restrooms can lead you to look for meaning, too.

The restaurateurs will tell you it’s a way to get people talking—that is, a way to sell more food. Ours may be a porn-suffused society, but it’s still a place where diners don’t necessarily expect pin-ups in a nice restaurant’s bathroom. It’s unclear, though, why the surprise of seeing nudie pics where they don’t belong, of all things, is what gets locals talking.

My pet theory: The trend in bathroom art isn’t so different from some trends in menu selection. This is the age of the $16 peanut butter, jelly, and foie gras sandwich, the artisan mac and cheese plate, and the endless gourmet cupcake line. The business of feeding our hunger in an uncertain age seems to involve no small number of opportunities to play on nostalgia for childhood. And I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, it was the bathroom—not the laptop—where smut was surreptitiously viewed.

And the teenage me could have especially related to the original décor in the bathrooms of Café Saint-Ex on 14th Street NW.

When Saint-Ex first opened, owner Mike Benson decorated the men’s room with old Playboy pinups from the fifties. It was a découpage style of adornment, with cut-outs glued to the wall. “Some of the stuff that I put up was original vintage posters,” Benson says. “It wasn’t just a photocopy or something I took off Google images and then printed out on color printers and glued to the wall. It was the original piece.”

Benson figured that customers would appreciate those sort of touches. “The thought is, you know, when you go to the bathroom and you see something cool, it’s like, oh, the people that own the establishment really give a damn and they put some cool eye candy up to distract you while you’re going to the bathroom.”

Instead, the bathroom-goers demonstrated another way of reversion to childhood, or at least to juvenile delinquency. “The problem whenever you put a découpage up, in particular, it is basically an open invitation for graffiti,” says Benson. “What always happens is, you inevitably get the balloon comment out of the mouth of the Marilyn Monroe pinup, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’ve lost my top.’ The nice thing about découpage is, somebody writes something terrible, you just découpage over the top of it. That’s a great thing. The hard part is just trying to keep up with it. You put something up, two days later you go in there and you’re like, ‘Really? That fast?’”

Just as Kuller did at Estadio, Benson tried to even out the gender disparity in the Saint-Ex lavatories: “At one point, in the ladies room, we had a photograph of Steve McQueen. It’s a backside shot of him standing in his driveway with no clothes on. We figured a woman sitting on the toilet, she looks to her left, and it’s like, ‘Look at that! Wow! Steve had a nice butt.’”

And that produced one of the more grown-up examples of defacement. “Sure enough, someone drew a turd” under McQueen’s backside, says Benson. “We ended up repainting the bathroom.”

Benson and his crew ultimately opted to go in a less graffiti-inducing direction. “When you put something up as mundane as World War II aviators, people just don’t even bother,” he says. “I think the more provocative you get, the taggers can’t resist.”

Despite all the hassles, Benson still thinks there’s something to be said for eye-popping artwork in the john. You just have to look a lot more closely to find it at Saint-Ex nowadays. A few lewdly illustrated phone sex cards, collected from London phone booths, are intermixed with the aviation photos.

“The opposite is a very clinical bathroom,” Benson says. “There’s something really depressing about a bathroom that’s sterile, fluorescent, and smells like cleaning products. The objective is, you want the customer to go in, appreciate how clean your bathroom is, and get the hell out. And that’s what happens. It is effective. But, what we’ve tried to do, and what a lot of restaurateurs and bar owners try to do, is you want the bathroom to be something that’s fun and kind of an extension of the restaurant itself. Here’s a room that’s semi-private. We know that in the men’s room, it’s going to be dudes coming in here. So I’ll glue up a couple of spanking cards from a London phone booth. It really shouldn’t illicit too many requests to speak to the manager. You hope what you get more often is, people going, ‘Where did that come from? That was really cool.’ Or, people saying, ‘Oh my God, I was in London. I saw those very cards.’”