Filmmaker and writer John Waters models a face mask with his likeness outside Atomic Books. Credit: Rachel Whang.

Filmmaker and writer John Waters is making a splash in the public health arena with a line of face masks to wear during the COVID-19 pandemic, including one with his signature pencil moustache.

Waters recently joined a California-based company to offer officially licensed John Waters themed-merchandise, including washable cotton masks displaying an image of the lower half of his face.

Atomic Books in Hampden is one of the only retailers in the country that has an agreement to sell the masks. Co-owner Benn Ray said the store has been deluged with orders since posting an online pre-sale on Friday.

“We sold close to 100 of them within about 24 hours of putting them on our website,” Ray said. “We thought it would be fun and cool and people would be into it. We had no idea it would have this tremendous of a response.”

Who’s buying them?

“We’re shipping them all over the country,” Ray said.

An early sign that Waters is marketing custom face masks came last week, when he delivered a virtual commencement speech to graduates of the School of Visual Arts New York City.

Waters was wearing one of his masks when he first came onscreen, but then he took it off once he began speaking. The school also sent out a photo of him wearing his face mask while holding the doctoral degree he received.

In his speech, Waters told graduates he doesn’t like most face masks because they “threaten my whole identity.” By design, they cover one of Waters’ best-known features: his moustache.

One of the John Waters masks solves that problem with a drawing of Waters’ face from the nose down, his moustache front and center. There’s also a John Waters Filthy Roach face mask, which makes it look like the wearer is chewing on a mouthful of the insects.

Both are non-medical face coverings, meant to be worn outside a hospital setting, wherever masks are required or recommended.

Is Waters happy with the drawing of his face? Is the moustache perhaps too thick?

“It’s good enough, yes,” he said. “I don’t think it is from one specific photograph. But yes, I think it’s fine. You have to exaggerate a little more when you’re turned into a cartoon.”

The roach masks play off a recurring theme in his movies, he explained.

“You know, Ricki Lake had a roach-print dress in ‘Hairspray,’” he said. “We had roaches crawling across Liz Renay’s ass in ‘Desperate Living.’ We ate roaches in ‘Desperate Living.’ We did the Roach Dance [in ‘Hairspray.’]… Roaches have been heavily in my work.”

Ate roaches?

“Queen Carlotta [Edith Massey] did make Mink Stole [playing Peggy Gravel] eat roaches,” he said. “It’s an obscure moment, but…”

In a phone interview, Waters said he has previously approved the sale of John Waters-themed merchandise on a case-by-case basis, including T-shirts at the Baltimore Museum of Art when his retrospective exhibit, “Indecent Exposure,” was there in 2018 and 2019.

Under the new arrangement, he said, he’s working with a company, Kreepsville 666, to produce and distribute an entire line of John Waters merchandise, including T-shirts, pins, buttons, wallets and purses. Soon to come, the first-ever John Waters Funko Pop figure.

The Los Angeles-based manufacturer and retailer has a retail store and also carries themed products associated with Elvira, Vampira, “Tales from the Crypt” and the estate of Vincent Price, among others.

Waters said he was approached about licensing a product line by Scott Marcus of the DevlinAgency, a company that specializes in celebrity management, business development and licensing. Marcus works with Kreepsville and suggested that Waters collaborate with the company to develop a sanctioned product line.

“I’ve had lots of different deals over the years,” Waters said. “I’ve had bumper stickers. I’ve had mugs. I’ve had T-shirts. But then [Marcus] called me. He handles Elvira and Vincent Price, you know. I thought, Well that’s a good company. I do horror conventions, and I know that world. So I pretty much turned all my deals over to him.”

Waters said he felt comfortable with Kreepsville in part because of Marcus and the other personalities he represents. He also heard good things about the company directly from Cassandra Peterson, who is Elvira.

“They have a good market and they did quite well with Vincent Price, who was always one of my idols,” he said.

The company’s website lists several other John Waters items, such as the John Waters Filthy Roach Bifold Wallet; the John Waters Mega Silver Face Enamel Pin; the John Waters Pink Face Enamel Pin; the John Waters Filthy Roach Enamel Pin, and the John Waters Pink Head T-shirt.

The face masks are made of double-layered cotton fabric, with cotton bands that fit over the ears, and are “washable and reusable.” They cost $18.95, but Atomic Books sells them for $18.

Waters said there’s more to come, including a roach-themed purse and the Funko Pop figure. He said the initial items have been available for “a couple of months” but never had a big launch like the Nike sportswear line he promoted last year in a marketing campaign that included a holiday ad with his face on the back cover of The New Yorker, among other places.

He said his Kreepsville line “got stymied a little” because of the pandemic and couldn’t have much of a Nike-style launch. At the same time, he said, the face masks were a direct response to the ongoing health crisis.

“They came to me with that,” he said, just as public health officials were recommending that everyone wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “They said, ‘Because of the face mask thing, we have ideas.’ And they sent them and I said, ‘They’re great, do them.’”

Atomic Books, at 3620 Falls Road in Baltimore, has had a long, friendly relationship with Waters. It’s the place where he has his local book-signings and where he gets his fan mail delivered.

“Atomic Books has been really great to me,” Waters said. “It’s my home.”

Ray said Atomic Books became involved with the merchandise line after Waters stopped in one day and showed the masks to him and co-owner Rachel Whang.

“He was coming by to pick up his mail and he had mentioned the face masks and we hadn’t seen them yet,” Ray said. “So he put them on and we were like: ‘Holy shit! Can we take a picture of these? These are amazing.’”

Waters told them about his licensing agreement with Kreepsville and who else the company represents.

“That seemed like it was right up our alley,” Ray said. “We contacted the manufacturer and set up a wholesale agreement with them, the same thing we do with anything else.”

Atomic Books will be selling other merchandise from Waters’ line, Ray said.

Waters cautioned that even though he wore one of his own masks briefly for the virtual commencement ceremony and posed for photos at Atomic Books, fans aren’t likely to see him around town in one.

“When I go out, I try to keep a low profile,” he said. “Not like, HEY, ITS ME!”

As a private citizen, “I wear a plain black or a plain white one,” he said. “That actually is a little bit of a disguise…When I go to Eddie’s and have that mask on, less people say something. I think some people don’t know it’s me.”

It doesn’t always work as a disguise, though. Waters said a friend recently sent him a photo from social media showing a close-up of Waters’ feet as he stood in line on a six-foot marker at Eddie’s grocery store, adhering to the store’s social distancing guidelines.

“The person was standing behind me and said: ‘How Baltimore is this? I’m standing in line with John Waters in a virus epidemic!’ That was funny, I thought.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.