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  • Writer's pictureRua Fay

How a Couple, a Muralist, and Movie Star Changed Baltimore

Perhaps one of the most overlooked art scenes in the United States lies in Baltimore, Maryland. It's difficult to turn a corner in the city without being greeted by a colorful mural, or a building full of starving artists. While cities like New York and Los Angeles might have the reputation, it's Baltimore that deserves a piece of the recognition. The local art school, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) has produced some of the best creative minds of the past century, such as Jeff Koons and a featured player of this article, John Waters. It's impossible to understate the impact of John Waters and his collaborator, Divine on the film world and the local culture in Baltimore. An important event in the legacy of Divine occured in 2018, when an attempt to immortalize her almost had dire consequences.

To understand how iconic Divine was, look no further than 106 E. Preston St, the former home of couple, Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams. The row house lies in the Mount Vernon historical district of Baltimore, lovingly nicknamed the city's "gayborhood." It is located six blocks away from where an iconic scene in film history was shot. Just a short walk away is the street where Divine famously ate dog feces for the John Waters film, Pink Flamingos, which not only stands as one of her most notable roles, but also serves as an extremely important movie in LGBT culture. This insane stunt gave the film notoriety and opened the doors for Divine to pursue a mainstream acting career. Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid was even modeled after her distinctive look!

Baltimore is a city that treasures their pop culture history, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who appreciates Divine more than Salazar and Williams. Using their connections to local artist, Gaia, the couple privately commissioned the mural, and the painting began on October 15th, 2018. To locals, the piece was an absolute hit, with people making journies across the city to take pictures in front of the technicolor masterpiece, and to show their appreciation for one of Baltimore's most beloved gay icons.

Christian Larsen, an associate curator at The Met, referred to the mural as "astonishing for its sensitive likeness, bold color, excellent execution, and brilliant physical placement." And the chief executive officer of Divine's estate said the mural is was "an inspiring message for counter-culture types, the LGBT community, and those affirming body positive representation.” To anyone on the outside looking in, it seemed like the commission was a success, until a month later...

In mid November of 2018, the legal ramifications of Gaia's mural began to rear their ugly heads. Since Mount Vernon is a historical district of Baltimore, it's extremely difficult to obtain the necessary permits to change anything in terms of infrastructure. Salazar and Williams failed to get the paperwork done and as a consequence, the future of the mural was brought into question. For a while, there was widespread fear that the painting could be scrubbed off the side of the building and the couple as well as the artist would be punished by the city of Baltimore. Despite the fact that the city is absolutely covered in murals, the placement of Divine in the Mount Vernon neighborhood made her future uncertain.

Fortunately, later in the month The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation gave Gaia's mural a highly anticipated, stamp of approval. Divine was here to stay, and the neighborhood was relieved, but not nearly as relieved as Salazar and Williams, who took a big risk for the sake of art. Later on, John Waters himself visited the mural and joked that “Preston Street now has the ultimate Neighborhood Watch, no crime will happen with Divine on duty.” The permanent display of the mural was a huge win for the gay community, film world, and the legacy of John Waters and Divine.

In Februrary of 2022, I was fortunate enough to visit the mural for myself on my first ever trip to Baltimore. I was blown away by the sheer scale, colors, and special feeling of being in its presence. In a world rampant with prejudice and judgement, the fact that someone as unapologetically themselves as Divine can have their own dedicated part of Baltimore gives me hope.

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