If you’d like to see a tiny cherub-looking statue casually peeing into a fountain, then Brussels, Belgium is the place for you! Known as the Manneken Pis (literally “little pee man”), this boyish sculpture is strangely one of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels, just a few hundred meters from Grand Place.
When people see this little guy, they may first point out how obviously small he is compared to their expectations, they may try to ask nonexistent surrounding locals in the crowd why he’s dressed in a funny outfit, they’ll snap a few photos for no good reason, and then they’ll wander away slightly dissatisfied, opting for a much grander Belgian waffle buried under mounds of strawberries and whipped cream.
Put in place in August of 1619, the Manneken Pis has been hidden to be protected from bombs, stolen numerous times, and dressed in nearly 1000 different outfits to date. His first costume was gifted from the governor of the Austrian Netherlands, and he has since been outfitted in everything from a judo gi to a Santa suit. Keeping with the Turkey theme of the concurrent Flower Carpet/Assumption Day festivities, when I was there in August of 2014, he was dressed as a Turkish immigrant worker.
For reasons relatively unknown, the Manneken Pis has become a must-see in Brussels. He’s right up there with those famous Belgian waffles, chocolates, and beers. To be fair, this little figurine is cute in a charmingly rebellious sort of way; though the nature of his celebrity seems mostly novel. I mean, what’s not to love about a tiny naked statue defiantly pissing into a drinking fountain, never mind the fact that he’s frequently dressed in a new outfit every couple months?
Amusingly, his miniscule exposed penis, arched stream and various getups appear to be the sole contributors to the Manneken Pis’ prominence. With virtually no history or meaning behind the statue, one could argue it is famous for simply being famous. But, then again, this argument could hold true for much larger attractions such as the Statue of Liberty in New York or the little mermaid in Copenhagen or even the infamous Louvre pyramid in Paris.
Why some become famous when others are left at the wayside remains a mystery. Maybe it’s simply the luck of the draw, accompanied by moderate amounts of height and design. Maybe a nearness to other notable sites (such as Grand Place) has something to do with it. Or maybe the pure novelty of purposely visible crude humor in our relatively conservative settings is enough to warrant widespread excitement. Who knows? Though if we were placing bets, I’d put my money on the latter.
Interestingly, in the 1980s, another small statue was erected as a compliment to the Menneken Pis. Known as Jeanneke Pis, she represents the female counterpart of the bronze figurines. And don’t worry, it’s exactly what you are thinking; Jeanneke Pis is curiously squatting as a flow of water trickles down into another shallow fountain. About a five to ten minute walk from the Manneken Pis, Jeanneke Pis is much less known, and perhaps with good reason. She was constructed hundreds of years later in efforts to project gender equality or in more probable hopes of mirroring the fame received by the Mannaken and driving in even more tourism. If Jeanneke were to become well-known, she would truly be famous for being famous. Unfortunately, having lady parts only occasionally helps when acquiring meaningful recognition; and it’s very hard to put coherent clothes on a squatting sculpture. Plus, there’s no getting around the fact that squatting just looks weird; it’s far less cool than casually whipping it out to naturally vandalize unsuspecting grounds or, in this case, fountains.
Maybe Jeanneke will develop into a Manneken-like attraction, but for now we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the diminutive offerings of the grandiose Manneken Pis, which proves once and for all that size really doesn’t matter… at least when it comes to quirky statues and tourist attractions.