1,960,000 Google hits.
Almost 1,000 handmade, specially-fit costumes.
A few legends, and countless tourists.
And yet, like the Mona Lisa, it is one of the more underwhelming tourist attractions I’ve ever seen. I believe my first reaction was to say out loud “why is this a thing.” However, according to Google, the “Peeing Boy” (or Manneken Pis) statue is the number one “top attraction” of Brussels, Belgium. Here, I’m going to describe the Manneken Pis as I, and many others, find it, and allow you to decide whether it solely is worth a trip to Brussels for.
The Mannken Pis stands 61 centimeters (that is 2 feet, less than the length of your arm) tall and is perched on a fountain about 5 feet behind a fence. The fountain itself is taller than person-height, making the statue itself seem even smaller.
The publicly-indecent fellow is dressed occasionally, a few times per month. His costumes reflect a holiday or a particular cause (although if I were a cause I’m not sure I’d want my logo on a tiny statue of a child tinkling), and many of them are on display at the Manneken Pis “GardeRobe.”
A small room on the top floor of the Brussels City Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the Manneken Pis and showing off the “original” statue. Cool, right? Well. Between the GardeRobe and the small room, there are at least 200 statues of the Manneken Pis that they use to either show off costumes or illustrate a historical point. Which one is “real,” and if they are all exactly the same, what is so special about the one up on display?
And then, without any explanation, the statue they have under a spotlight, labeled as THE “original,” is missing a part. Namely, the most important part. You know, the part used to pee, the point of the statue in the first place. All that’s left is a hole.
I have so many questions about this — who is currently in possession of this utterly important part, did it break or was it stolen (and if it was stolen has that person ever been properly congratulated), is the loss the reason why the city decided to replace it with a new copy? I think this absence deserves a story more than each of the 900+ costumes do.
If the little boy peeing in the street getting more attention than any little boy needs wasn’t enough, in the 1970’s someone decided that even in public urination there must be equal representation of genders, and created a female “Jeanneke Pis.” This is located across from the famous Delirum Pub, Impasse de la Fidélité 4. A dog version (equality between species?) is located on Rue de Chartreux. While every inch of me argues for equality, I would not argue for it in this specific circumstance.
So why a Manneken Pis? Why is it so popular?
While there are of course legends that you can find on your good friend Google, I think it comes down to the very complicated Belgian culture. In olden times, the stereotypical idea of a Belgian was the image of a strong and hearty, innately “manly” man (and in this case, the image of a child portraying his ability to become that through his lack of respect for public decency). That concept could have been behind the creation of the statue in the first place. When historical culture is combined with the lack-of-identity that characterizes the divided Belgian society today (clarification on this point in a future post, I promise) and that creates a strong sense of self-deprecation and cynical humor, we get the crazy make-fun-of-itself cultural icon that is the Manneken Pis. Because really, what city wants to be known not for its architecture or additions to high culture of the world, but for a small child permanently relieving himself into the street.
Brussels, Belgium does.
To find the two-foot-tall nonsense child whose image has made millions for tourist shops, follow the trail of people holding selfie-sticks marching out of the Grand Place. It’s helpful to know that it’s on Rue de l’Etuve 31, but I promise, following the tourists is all that is necessary. While I have yet to see someone take an inst-worthy photo of them imitating the statue like tourists do all over the world, I look forward to the day that it happens.