Baltimore Son: John Waters

The filmmaker and local’s Charm City.

When filmmaker and artist John Waters is home in Baltimore, he drops by Hampden’s Atomic Books to pick up his fan mail, which occasionally includes a gift or two. “Once we received what we’re pretty sure was a gift-wrapped, uncooked ham,” says Benn Ray, owner of the ’zine- and comic-filled bookstore. That seems like a fitting tribute to the native-born “Pope of Trash” who has been making oddball, often dirty films like “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray” in and around the streets of Charm City since the 1970s. “He’s a cultural icon, and he’s completely Baltimore-centric,” says Ray, a longtime friend. “The city is unique, humorous, and no B.S., just like John.”

Atomic Books

No wonder, then, that with “John Waters: Indecent Exposure” on view now through Jan. 6, 2019, the Baltimore Museum of Art pays tribute to Waters with its first major exhibit of his photos, video montages and sculptures, many harnessing themes, players and scenes from his movies.

Visitors can take in thought-provoking, sometimes raunchy works like “Divine in Ecstasy,” a nostalgic photo of his drag queen muse (and “Pink Flamingos” star) plus “Children Who Smoke,” a photo montage of mid-century child actors who seem to be puffing on cigarettes. “John is both subversive and widely appealing,” says exhibit curator Kristen Hileman. “This show adds another dimension to his talents, and shows his alternate world vision.” Many pieces riff on pop culture, including “Play Date,” sculptures of child-sized silicone figures of Michael Jackson and Charles Manson in fuzzy PJs. “John works with the fabricator of the Chucky dolls,” says Hileman. “It makes you think about who we put forward as celebrities. What’s the power that they have over us?” The BMA show also stars peep-show versions of many Waters’ earliest movies, and a 24-hour film fest of his flicks rolls Nov. 9-10.

John Waters. "At Home" 1998. ©John Waters, courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

And Baltimore itself—particularly Waters’ beloved, funky Hampden neighborhood— also provides tactile evidence of the bawdy auteur’s work and life. In the ’hood, Atomic Books sells signed DVDs of his films “Serial Mom” and “Hairspray” underneath a wall decked with framed, handmade Christmas cards from Waters. A few blocks away, the Philly’s Best corner takeout served as the title character’s workplace in 1998’s “Pecker.” The main character, an aspiring photographer played by Edward Furlong, served customers roach-filled fries in the movie, but in real life the place offers up pretty tasty, vermin-free pizza burgers and Indian curries.

Scenes from Waters’ “Pecker” and “Hairspray” were shot along Hampden’s main drag, 36th Street (aka The Avenue). “’Pecker’ made Hampden look better than it does in real life,” says Waters. We beg to differ, since a Waters-inspired trawl of the shop- and restaurant-filled zone could include stops at Changed My Mind Vintage for “Hairspray”-era retro clothing or Cafe Hon, a diner decked with a two-story metal pink flamingo.

A few blocks south, Waters hangout Rocket to Venus pours local beers and strong cocktails (try the Figgy Pop with fruit vodka, lime, orange and soda) in retro surrounds with local art on the walls. Its brunch menu veers between hangover-curing fare like the Hampden Pothole (a stack of eggs, toast, tater tots and breakfast meat) and seafood (peel-and-eat shrimp, a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with catfish).

Divine at American Visionary Art Museum

Across town, the late Divine, ever the plumped-up Grace Kelly to Waters’ lowbrow Hitchcock, lives on as a 10-foot-tall, swiveling statue in full drag regalia at the American Visionary Art Museum. Fans of the actor’s work in “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester” et. al. can also pay tribute at his grave at nearby Prospect Hill Park Cemetery—just be sure to look under Divine’s given name, Harris Glenn Milstead.

But there might be no better place to toast Waters himself than at Club Charles (aka Club Chuck), a divey-meets-elegant bar in the Station North ‘hood. Ring a buzzer to get in, and you’ll find yourself amid Art Deco-style murals of Greek gods and neon lights. Scoot up to the long red-and-white bar with a local beer or a surprisingly good highball (the Viola mixes mulberry gin and Meyer lemons), and you find yourself drinking next to Waters himself. “I have an affinity for weird bars, and so does John,” says Atomic Books’ Ray. 

Club Charles

Jennifer Barger
About the author


Jennifer Barger is a Washington, D.C.-based travel and design writer who spe...