During the 16th century, fussy Vatican clerics took offense at the friskier frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and commissioned an artist to paint draperies over the private parts of the nudes on the ceiling.

Here in Phoenix, there's a bar called the Monastery, and its frescoes are really a decoupage of dcolletage, hundreds of photos of nudes, tastefully mounted over the toilets in the rest room so that one can look up and contemplate the divine while taking care of more earthy matters.

Two weeks ago, after a complaint from an anonymous matronly patron, the Phoenix Police Department vice squad swooped down on the Monastery and tried to confiscate the bathroom art. But since they lacked a screwdriver with which to remove the panels bearing the pictures, the cops left a warning. If the bar owners didn't take them down or cover them up, they would be busted for display of busts.

Fiery passions so often burn beneath placid exteriors. The Monastery is a peaceful, little, white-clapboard house behind a fence and beyond a long, dirt parking lot somewhere on 28th Street. If you don't know exactly where it is, we aren't telling. Part of the Monastery's gimmick is that it advertises by word of mouth.

"If you liked it, you told your friends, and chances are they'd like it and tell their friends," says Mac McDonald, who has owned the Monastery for six years and has worked for it since its initial incarnation, over on 48th Street, back in 1970.

The grounds look like your yard ought to: big decks front and back, shady paloverde trees and picnic tables. If you want a hamburger, the bartender hands you a piece of raw meat that you cook yourself on a big, gas barbecue grill. Just about every evening's entertainment is a nonstop volleyball game on a full-size sand court. Players rotate in and out to make beer and bathroom runs.

Part of the ritual of taking friends to the Monastery used to be to send them off alone to the bathrooms, which are housed in a little gazebo at the back of the property. They usually came out smirking.

The men's room featured vintage Playboy pinups mounted beneath plastic on a long panel over the urinals. If nothing else, it was a historical record of what breasts looked like in the pre-health-club-boob-job era.

The women's room was more romantically tricked out in gauzy shots of well-hung hunks and men and women cavorting together, with the accent on female pleasure.

Kim McDonald, the assistant manager and daughter of the owner, did most of the mounting of the women's-room panels. "It took lots of very hard hours of work," she says, coyly.

In its original site on 48th Street, the bar also featured bathroom nude photos; instead of being mounted beneath Health Department-approved plastic, they were just pasted on the wall and varnished over, but bar patrons tended to write on them, and, especially in the ladies' room, act out their Lorena Bobbitt aggressions and fantasies by peeling off strategic pieces. When the bar moved to its present location two years ago, Mac McDonald was more concerned with getting the bar running than in decorating the washrooms. But, he says, "People kept asking, 'When are you going to do the bathrooms?'" And so they did them.

Wednesday, April 6, three vice-squad detectives--two males and one female--came in during the afternoon lull, flashed badges and headed for the heads. They asked the bartender for a screwdriver; she asked them to wait for the owner. The detectives left without leaving a card, but left a warning that because children sometimes come on the premises with their parents, something had to be done about the pictures. The options were to take them down, cover them up, or build separate, nudity-free bathrooms for children and other offendable clients.

McDonald had to call around town to find out where the detectives had come from. A vice sergeant downtown would not tell him who made the complaint but reiterated that the nudes could not stay up. Then McDonald tracked down the laws on public display of sexually explicit materials. They mandate that genitals, pubic areas, buttocks, and women's breasts from the top of the nipple down be covered.

"What we're probably going to do is make a little bit of a joke about it," says McDonald. "We'll follow the letter of the law and cover every butt and every pube, every penis and every boob with those little black dots you see in the magazines."
That will take countless hours. In the meantime, the shameful artworks are stacked in a storeroom, which has provoked an irate response from the Monastery's regular customers. The men argue about freedom of speech with the bartenders, and leave notes on the chalkboards in the bathrooms, saying things like, "This is America. If you don't like it, don't look at it."

The women are less vocal, but just as irate--in a passive-aggressive way. On the ladies'-room chalkboards, says Kim McDonald, "There were a couple of obscene drawings yesterday with a note saying if they can't have [the nude pictures], they'll draw their own. This morning there was a sign saying that everyone should bring their own pictures to put up.

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Michael Kiefer