Brussels feels relatively small and humble, though the capital of Belgium is the unofficial capital of the European Union (EU) playing host to the continent’s Parliament, Commission and EU Council, when compared to other important big cities of the region. Its shops close early, and the narrow streets, winding through medieval and neo-classical buildings, remain quiet and tranquil throughout the night. It’s a charming slice of Old World Europe teeming with slivers of modernity and, for some reason, there are naked, urinating little boys around every corner.
Fortunately, this prominence of prepubescent piss is not indicative of a public health epidemic or city-wide Pizzagate scenario. These peeing boys are actually all representations of one fictional boy, homages to a small bronze fountain sculpture in the heart of the city that goes by the name Manneken Pis, Dutch for “Lil’ Piddler.”The silly statue has spent the past few centuries valiantly serving the citizens of Brussels, from crucial drinking-water dispenser at its conception to the tourist dollar magnet it is today.
Peeing boy fountains in Brussels date back to the late 1300s, but this particular one originated in 1618 or 1619—accounts vary—when sculptor Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder erected the statue on a column with a rectangular basin at the bottom to catch water. Accounts also vary on what inspired such a specific subject matter, but it’s likely to be a tale about an infant lord from the 1100s, hung up in a tree in a basket where he peed on some enemy troops as they passed beneath. The original Piddler was replaced with a bronze version in 1920, and that Manneken Pis iteration spent the ensuing pre-20th century years changing locations, getting a backdrop and stand upgrade, and surviving a cannon bombardment from the French army.
By the 1800s, Brussels had grown quite fond of the little guy, his mascot status already beginning to take root. Taking note, some ne’er-do-wells began targeting the statute for theft. Occasionally, it was good clean fun like from a neighboring town, akin to a high school stealing their rival’s mascot, but when you maliciously mess with Manneken Pis, the citizens of Brussels get pissed. In 1817 a fugitive took off with the sculpture and smashed it into pieces, and he was sentenced to a life sentence of hard labor! It’s amazing some college students still had the courage to offend the little guy well into the 1900s.
Much like the Mona Lisa, Manneken Pis is smaller in person than you’d imagine, just under two feet tall (55cm) from toes to crown. He’s constantly surrounded by throngs of tourists, craning with selfie sticks and cameras to snap a pic with the only set of child genitals that won’t get you booted from Instagram and a visit from the FBI.
Like any popular influencer, Manneken Pis is gifted tons of free clothes. Individuals and organizations dress him up in costumes a few times each week to commemorate holidays, anniversaries, artists, designers and more. As far back as 1756, the guy was recorded to have a variety of fits, and his wardrobe has grown exponentially over time. A non-profit called Friends of Manneken-Pis has been reviewing submissions for new outfits since 1954, sifting through the myriad entries to make sure their boy is straight fresh and not rocking anything inappropriate.
So vast is Lil’ Piddler’s clothing catalog that an entire museum has been constructed to showcase a rotation of highlights from the statue’s 1000+ outfits. Just down the street from the fountain itself, the one-room menagerie hosted a class of school children when I went in to explore. The kids were fascinated with the lecturer pointing out the flashier costumes like his full set of samurai armor and SCUBA suit.
The cottage industry that’s sprung up around the statue is as tchotchke-filled and shameless as you might imagine, though I saw nothing in Brussels that I haven’t seen done with the Statue of Liberty in NYC. In the shops surrounding the fountain, you’ll find Manneken Pis keychains, chocolates, bookends and mugs. I even saw a horrific (and almost certainly unlicensed) tee with a Manneken Pis Minion holding his little yellow Minion wiener and urinating onto the word “Brussels.”
For all the tourist dollars he nets the city, the citizens of Brussels regard their cherub as more than a cash cow. To them, he exemplifies zwanze, a patently Brusselier brand of humor and way of life that utilizes cheeky, good-natured light pranks or jokes to poke fun at authority figures, serious situations or “proper decorum.” A city with a history of regularly being under the occupation of hostile forces, zwanze has served Brusseleirs as a zen-like coping mechanism, baked into their DNA. After the city went on lockdown in the aftermath of the 2016 terrorist bombings at the airport, zwanze was out in full force as #brusselslockdown trended on social media, people posted cat memes to thwart those attempting to use the attack and hashtag as an opportunity to fear-monger and gin up anti-Islamic sentiments.
“He’s funny and cute to the tourists, but we really do have a spot in our hearts for him here,” says Emma, a souvenir shopkeep selling Manneken Pis wares. “It’s a nice humorous counterpoint to being known for all the EU stuff.”
With a squatting sister statue, Jeanekke, and a leg-raised pooch, Zinneke, erected recently to round out the Pis family of statues, it’s clear that Brussels has fully embraced the Piddler who’s left such an indelibly positive piss stain on their culture.