Baltimore has a new monument to its cross-dressing cult hero and native son, Divine.
The two men who commissioned the work say it’s also meant to be a celebration of and show of support for the LGBT community in and “queer history” of Divine’s hometown.
“I’m So Beautiful” is the title of a three-story-high mural painted on the side of a row house in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon historic district, known as the city’s “gayborhood” at 106 E. Preston St.
Filmmaker John Waters, who knew Divine since high school and gave him starring roles in movies such as Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, was one of the first Baltimoreans to see the mural (or, as Baltimoreans pronounce it, Muriel, hon.)
“Wow! It is great,” he wrote to the Baltimore Fishbowl. “Divine looking out, blessing the city.”
I’m So Beautiful” is the title of the work, by the internationally prominent street artist Gaia. Depicting a buxom and benevolent Divine, with eyebrows arched and lips pouting, the image was based on a Greg Gorman photo that was used as the cover art for Divine’s 1984 disco single, I’m So Beautiful.
The mural is the first work of public art in Baltimore to commemorate Divine, who became famous starring in John Waters movies and 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. (There’s also a mural of Divine in a red dress, painted on a house in Seattle.)
The 300-pound actor, also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, was born in 1945 and died of an enlarged heart in 1988, three weeks after Hairspray was released. Besides Waters’ movies, Divine starred in “Lust in the Dust” with the late Tab Hunter and performed as a disco singer. Now a cult figure in his hometown and beyond, he’s also featured in “Indecent Exposure,” a retrospective of Waters’ work as a visual artist that opened this fall at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Gaia, born Andrew Pisacane, painted the mural on the side of a row house in the Mount Vernon historic district. It’s six blocks from the spot where Waters filmed his notorious scene of Divine eating dog feces at the end of “Pink Flamingos.”
The mural was commissioned by the owners of the row house, Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams, a married couple who operate it as an Airbnb property. Longtime fans of Divine, they say they commissioned the mural because they wanted both to honor him and to send a positive message to Baltimore’s LGBT community.
“My husband and I asked Gaia to create this mural as a tribute to Divine and the city’s queer history,” Salazar said. “At a time when LGBT rights are being threatened, we hoped that Divine’s beauty would inspire others to know that they too are beautiful.”
Salazar said they never considered a mural about any subject other than Divine, and they chose the image from the I’m So Beautiful cover because they felt it best conveyed the spirit of Divine and the message they had in mind.
“Divine symbolizes what we love about Baltimore, so we didn’t really consider anything else,” he said. “I had always loved that Greg Gorman photo because Divine was so perfectly celebrated in it, and her confidence and self-esteem are inspiring. When Gaia saw it, there was instant agreement about its artistic value and the message it might send.”
Gaia, who also lives in Baltimore, has painted murals around the world, including sites in London, Rome, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Bogota and Perth. He said he was pleased to paint Divine and honored that Waters came to see it.
“I like to paint very graphic images, very bold, saturated colors,” he said. “This fit…my aesthetic.”
In Waters’ movies, Divine typically played characters in trouble with the law. As Dawn Davenport in “Female Trouble,” he was a murderer who died in the electric chair. In “Multiple Maniacs, he was Lady Divine, who kills her boyfriend and eats his heart.
The Divine mural isn’t entirely legal, either. According to Eric Holcomb, the head of Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, it was painted without any permits, which are required for any changes to exteriors of buildings in the Mount Vernon historic district. The commission has asked the owners to apply for an “authorization to proceed” notice to make the mural legal, Holcomb said.
Salazar and Williams have submitted the application, which is under review, and the mural is allowed to stay up until a decision is made. The owners have also gotten experts to weigh in on the quality and significance of Gaia’s mural, in letters of support to the preservation commission. A public hearing is set for Nov. 13.
“As a work of art, this particular mural of Divine is astonishing for its sensitive likeness, bold color, excellent execution, and brilliant physical placement, poking out from the alley amongst stately row houses,” wrote Christian Larsen, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Noah Brodie, the chief executive officer of Divine’s estate, also wrote in support of keeping the mural.
“It’s an inspiring message for counter-culture types, the LGBT community, and those affirming body positive representation,” Brodie said in his letter. “In many ways, she represents the strength of Baltimore’s character, and serves as a reminder of the city’s perseverance and authenticity. Divine is brassy, bold and beautiful, just like Baltimore.”