Baltimore’s newest work of public art is simply Divine–as in, a three-story-tall portrait of Divine, the drag actor and Baltimore native who became famous in John Waters movies such as “Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.”
The mural, titled “I’m So Beautiful,” was painted over the last eight days on the side of a row house at 106 E. Preston St., part of the Mount Vernon Historic District.
It’s six blocks from the corner where Waters filmed his notorious scene of Divine eating dog feces in “Pink Flamingos.” It shows Divine as he appeared on the cover of his 1984 disco single, “I’m So Beautiful,” with arched eyebrows, bare shoulders and puckered lips. It was the sixth single released from his album, “The Story So Far.”
Waters praised the mural yesterday. “Wow! It is great,” he wrote in an email to Baltimore Fishbowl. “Divine looking out, blessing the city!”
The mural is the first work of public art in Baltimore to commemorate Divine, a cult figure who was dubbed “Drag Queen of the Century” by People magazine. It’s one of the first murals anywhere to pay tribute to a drag queen.
The actor, also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, was born in 1945 and died in 1988, just after “Hairspray” was released. Waters gave him the name Divine and it stuck, though in real life, Divine “had no desire to be a woman,” Waters told an audience in New York City last summer. “He wanted to be Godzilla… We created Divine to scare hippies.”
A 10-foot-tall statue of Divine, by British sculptor Andrew Logan, is on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum, to which Logan donated it last year. Divine also features prominently in “Indecent Exposure,” the retrospective of Waters’ work as a visual artist that opened this month at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In 2016, a local group launched a $70,000 Kickstarter campaign to erect a monument to Divine near the corner of Read and Tyson streets, where the dog-poo scene was shot. David Hess and Sebastian Martorana were the artists. The group received permission from Baltimore’s Public Art Commission after one panel member said she was “appalled” no one had done it already. But they weren’t able to raise the necessary funds, and the monument never materialized.
The new E. Preston Street mural is the creation of Andrew Pisacane, a 2007 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art better known as the street artist Gaia. A leader in the international street art movement and producer of the Open Walls Baltimore mural program in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, Gaia, 30, has painted more than 10 murals in Baltimore, including the Dove mural on the “Chicken Box” Building that was torn down to make way for an expansion of the Parkway Theater on North Avenue. A New York native, Gaia has also painted murals around the world, including in London, Rome, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Bogota and Perth.
Contacted as he was putting the finishing touches on the mural yesterday, Gaia said he and his crew started painting it on Monday, October 15. He said it’s a private commission by two men who own the building, an investment property, and are fans of Divine. He declined to disclose the budget, but said no public funds were involved.
The owners approached Gaia with the idea after he had finished three murals in Remington. He initially didn’t think he could do it until the spring, “but my schedule opened up for a week,” he said.
Oct. 19 would have been Divine’s 73rd birthday, which was pure coincidence.
“The timing is totally serendipitous,” Gaia said. “We didn’t plan on it, but it’s perfect. You have to strike while the iron is hot.”
He said the owners specifically wanted a painting of the photo on Divine’s “I’m So Beautiful” cover, and he agreed as long as they got approval from the estate that controls the rights to the image. He said assistants started last week by priming the wall and then he painted the details, working from a cherry picker stationed in the alley next to the house.
“I like to paint very graphic images, very bold, saturated colors. This fit … my aesthetic,” he said.
Gaia said he is also a fan of Waters, “especially his activities as a civic leader. I’ve always admired how much he has done for the Charles North community and the Station North community. He has been very generous.”
In Waters’ films, Divine typically played a renegade, someone who broke the law. As Dawn Davenport in “Female Trouble,” he played a murderer who died in the electric chair. In “Multiple Maniacs,” he played Lady Divine, who kills her boyfriend and eats his heart.
Fittingly, the mural isn’t entirely authorized. City representatives say it was painted without any permits, which are required for any changes to the exteriors of buildings in historic districts such as Mount Vernon.
As Gaia was completing the mural, a city inspector approached him, saying the city had received complaints. Gaia referred the inspector to the property owners, who could not be reached.
Eric Holcomb, head of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said in an email that his office didn’t approve plans for the mural before work began and that “no one has contacted us.” He said CHAP is asking the owners to apply for an “authorization to proceed” notice to make the mural legal.
Although it sits across from Yogaworks and adds a pop of color to the neighborhood, the mural isn’t as prominent as some of Gaia’s other works, as it’s on a side wall that faces a dead-end alley. It can’t be easily seen by drivers heading westbound on one-way E. Preston Street. Gaia said he likes it that way.
“It’s nice and hidden, a little gem.”
Atop the mural is the title of the song, which became one of Divine’s anthems.
The chorus is as upbeat as Gaia’s image:
I’m so beautiful
You’ve gotta believe that I am beautiful
I’m so beautiful, can’t you see? Look at me!
I said, I’m so beautiful
Well everybody’s come to this point of view
We’re all beautiful, can’t you see?