John Waters Has Made Bad Taste into an Art Form

Alina Cohen
Oct 11, 2018 10:52PM

I am supposed to be at the art studio of legendary cult film director, writer, and artist John Waters. My Lyft, I assume, has dropped me off at the wrong place. The red brick building in front of me is a “back and pain center” located across from a graveyard, on a nondescript residential street in northern Baltimore. I’m here to interview the legendary auteur about his just-opened survey at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), a couple of miles away. I walk into the clinic and sheepishly ask if there’s an artist studio nearby. They don’t know of any, but suggest that I try the space across the hall. And behind that doorway, I indeed find the pencil-mustachioed Waters. He is wearing a black jacket and white button-down shirt, and he’s surrounded by a lot of veritable crap.

“These are just visual things that I like, that inspire me,” Waters says casually, looking around the clutter. Plastic and cardboard boxes are stacked atop cheap gray corporate carpet, stuffed with seemingly random paraphernalia: a teddy bear, containers of JujyFruits, a picture of the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s also an (ostensibly fake) Andy Warhol Brillo box piled with recent tabloids (The Enquirer: “Who’s Gay & Who’s Not?”). Also crammed into the unremarkable suburban space: a pair of drums; a giant fake cockroach in another box; a series of still-packaged Justin Bieber dolls; and a tan sofa whose small pillows were made to look like busts of Waters and his long-time muse, the drag queen Divine. On his desk, I spy a copy of the film Kaitlyn Gender (2015), a pornographic spoof on Kardashian clan member Caitlyn Jenner. Waters smiles and laughs easily as he points out various objects—in addition to creative fodder, each seems to double as a gag to keep the artist in good spirits.

Divine and John Waters on February 14, 1975 in New York City. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images.


There’s a giant brown rubber snake in one of the boxes toward the back. It looks vaguely phallic, but mostly scatalogical. Waters had a little snake, he explains, when he was a kid. He just decided to make a big one. “My whole life is a joke shop,” he says. In keeping with everything the man has ever produced, the studio is an affront to the senses.

In the back corner, he keeps his own fan art. Over the years, devotees have mailed him reverential portraits and sculptures. One, in glitter, imagines Waters as a yellow Simpsons character. Another replaces the farmer and wife in Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic (1930) with Waters and Divine. “I’m going to eventually use this for something,” he says, “but I don’t know what.”

“Contemporary art’s always witty,” Waters says. “Can it be funny? We’ll see.”

Indeed, Waters’s reputation lies in turning sordid, abject, and disposable objects into artistic gold. One man’s trash is John Waters’s bread and butter. Deemed the “Pope of Trash,” he’s made a career out of celebrating bad taste. Most famously, he directed the 1972 black comedy Pink Flamingos, which features a plethora of objectionable highlights: a couple has sex with chickens between their bodies; a kinky couple with neon hair kidnaps women to impregnate them, and then sells their babies to lesbian couples; Waters’s star, Divine, eats actual dog shit off the ground. But his far tamer 1988 film, Hairspray (about dancing, big hair, and segregation in 1960s Baltimore), thrust him into the mainstream—Broadway adapted the story into a musical in 2002, and John Travolta starred in the 2007 cinematic remake.

American actor Paul Swift carrying American actress and singer Edith Massey on a barrow in the film Pink Flamingos. American actors Danny Mills and Mary Vivian Pearce attending the scene. 1972. Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

Waters’s kitschy, tacky aesthetic might seem at odds with the spotless, hallowed white cube—yet he has been making art since 1992, and last week, the BMA opened “Indecent Exposure,” his first-ever retrospective. Filled with 160 works (photographs, sculptures, films), the show brings Waters’s irreverent, mostly comedic oeuvre into a hallowed, erudite locale. Exit the show—which concludes with faux peep show booths—and you’ll find yourself among elegant mosaics from ancient Antioch.

Waters is no stranger to the art world. He’s been a collector for decades (even buying a Warhol picture of Jackie Kennedy for $100 back in the 1960s). Brenda Richardson, the former deputy director and chief curator of the BMA, became Waters’s mentor, introducing him to the art that she liked and explaining how to build a collection. New York art dealer Colin de Land, who died in 2003, became Waters’s first gallerist. Marianne Boesky now represents him; he’s had four solo exhibitions there since 2006.

Waters’s reputation lies in turning sordid, abject, and disposable objects into artistic gold. One man’s trash is his bread and butter.

As Waters tells it, his fine art career began one day when he needed a still shot from one of his own movies. He put the VHS tape in his television and, without hitting pause, took a photograph of the television screen. “I just blundered into it,” he says. “It looked like the movie, but arty and different.” He repeated the process with other movies (his own, in addition to films featuring Lana Turner, Otto Preminger, and Ann-Margaret), often capturing a series of key shots that, when lined up, told the narrative of the film in a mock storyboard format.

The BMA exhibition includes many of these early endeavors. In Slade 16 (1992), for example, Waters captured stills of the opening credits, actors’ faces (at first wistful, then horrified), and a scene in which a baby catches on fire. In Waters’s static retelling, a new narrative emerges, one that privileges campy horror: “I didn’t even care about the rest of the movie,” he says. “That scene [with the burning infant] was really influential to me. The shock value of it.”

John Waters, detail of Slade 16, 1992. © John Waters. Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.


Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, of course, is the name of Waters’s 1981 memoir for good reason. In the book, Waters writes: “To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humor, which is anything but universal.” But, as Waters tells me, “that term is dated now, because good bad taste is just American humor.”

Still, at age 72, he’s able to make this young writer more than a little uncomfortable—at least with his political opinions. He tells me he’s a fan of the recent Saturday Night Live episode in which Matt Damon portrayed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, though Waters questions whether the show could have parodied his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, as well. (“I’m trying to think how they could have,” he riffs. “They could have [had her keep] saying, ‘But I don’t know where I was.’ They could have taken that. ‘Where are we? I don’t know where we are.’”)

Waters laid the groundwork for decades of national amusements, paving the way for the popularization of what were, when he was a child, considered “sick jokes.” If his films cover topics such as sexual taboo and offbeat competition (Who’s the best dancer in Baltimore? Who’s the filthiest person alive?), his artwork often uses the same sense of comic timing to deride art-world rituals. His piece Hardy Har (2006) functions as a practical joke: The artwork comprises a black-and-white chromogenic print of a flower, an infrared sensor, a mechanical pump, and water. When the viewer stands too close to the white tape just feet away from the photograph, it squirts her in the face with water via a tiny opening.

Another work from the same year, Art Market Research, pokes fun at art-world self-seriousness. Photographs feature printed, bureaucratic surveys and handwritten responses about various artists’ work. On Cindy Sherman’s report, for example, the report requests: “Please list what you liked most about the photographs.” In loopy blue handwriting, the respondent answers “colors,” “that she did it,” and “I like that it’s a woman artist.” Another document for the painter John Currin—known for his nude female portraits—prompts writers to describe what made them rate the artist’s paintings in a certain way. “Big tits” is the succinct reply. The works negate the serious scholarship of art historians and institutions, instead privileging, perhaps, the lowest common denominator: everyday, unfiltered opinions upon encountering unfamiliar artworks.

“Contemporary art’s always witty,” Waters says. “Can it be funny? We’ll see.” He names a few artists whose humorous oeuvres he admires: Sherman, Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Tracey Emin, Lee Lozano. It’s not funny art he collects, however, but art that makes him angry—something that makes him laugh at its nerve. “It has to hit me in a new way,” he says. Waters’s own collection features a work by Doug Padgett that resembles house fixtures (a light switch, a plug), and his “bucket list” artwork is a series of colored Easter eggs by George Stoll, intended to be hidden around the collectors’ home.

John Waters, Justin's Had Work, 2014. © John Waters. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery.

John Waters, Control, 2009. © John Waters. Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Yet after such a successful career as a transgressive filmmaker obsessed with the cheaper side of American life, can the often-pretentious art world that Waters lambastes take him seriously? Exhibition curator Kristen Hileman believes that, in fact, Waters’s success in cinema contributes an important facet to his art practice. “John is interested in the persona versus the real person, and how celebrity can get in the way of his recognition as a visual artist,” she says. “But also, how his personality and persona opens up visual art to a much larger audience.”

Waters draws a simple throughline between his art and film practice: “It’s always about editing and saving,” he tells me. In each of his creative worlds—when we spoke, he was working on his annual Christmas special, “A John Waters Christmas” (which will tour 17 cities this winter), and had just finished a draft of an essay collection, Mr. Know It All—he’s “just telling stories.”

After a successful career as a transgressive filmmaker obsessed with the cheaper side of American life, can the art world he lambastes take him seriously?

After visiting Waters’s studio, I head to the BMA survey and speak to its curator, Kristen Hileman. She included four films in the BMA show, which connect distinct aspects of Waters’s practices. One, entitled Kiddie Flamingos (2014), features schoolchildren participating in a table reading of a less-X-rated version of Pink Flamingos. The prepubescent actors don wigs and wacky hats, issuing lines such as “Now Mama, that’s just egg paranoia” and “Oh, what a stupid name, sounds like a chimpanzee on a tire swing.” Without the bite of Waters’s original film, the production becomes more adorable than edgy.

John Waters, Kiddie Flamingos, 2014. © John Waters. Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

At the end of the exhibition, the viewer finds three curtained peep show booths equipped with a single chair and a box of Kleenex on a ledge. Inside, screens play Waters’s earliest films, made when he was a teenager. After walking through white-walled galleries, this tacky, sordid final touch is a subtle little coup. In one of the booths, I watch an actress hack away at something on the ground with a giant ax.

If none of this seems particularly political, at least two scholars—University of Buffalo visual studies director Jonathan D. Katz and former Yale University School of Art dean Robert Storr—situate Waters’s work within the context of queer art. In their essays for the exhibition catalogue, they write about how Waters both continues and progressively ruptures a longer legacy of queer art in America.

Waters and his drag coterie, writes Katz, “were national exemplars of flaming queerdom long before being queer was a declaration of pride, long before it was safe to publicly declare affiliation with what was then, let’s not forget, still a literally illegal sexuality.” In Waters’s work, he sees an invitation, for viewers of any sexuality, to “share a queer subjectivity.”

John Waters, Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, 1996. © John Waters. Courtesy of The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Katz references the piece Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot (1996), which organizes still images of the titular orifices in a row, next to a picture of a dirty foot—the final taboo in X-rated filmmaking, according to Waters. Bill’s Stroller (2014) is a blue children’s stroller, emblazoned with the names of San Francisco’s queer sex clubs and outfitted with a studded leather belt across the front. It’s a commentary on how some members of a community that participated in then-fringe exploits have now settled down into traditional, child-rearing lives. For his part, Storr calls Waters “an inspiringly over-the-top stand-up Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg.” Instead of writing poems, he’s created “innuendo-laced patter and sharp-edged one-liners that skewer prejudice and yet welcome anyone.”

Waters isn’t afraid of having strong (and perhaps unpopular) opinions, including ones that would put him at odds with many progressives, to say the least. “I think I am politically correct,” Waters concludes, but he believes that political correctness could also get out of hand. He believes that “theybies,” or infants whose parents let them decide their own gender, are “ludicrous.” “They’ll be in mental institutions, those children,” he says. “It’s your kid. You tell them what to do, as a parent. You are a girl or a boy. Later? You want to change it? That’s fine.”

Not for the first time in our conversation, this writer cringes. Waters, for better or for worse, still isn’t afraid to offend. He’s more reserved, however, when discussing a friend in prison. He’ll mention what books he’s shipping to him, but not what his crime was (he’s around 20 years old, with a life sentence). It’s the only time throughout our conversation that Waters seems to be holding back. The artist has sent the prisoner (who just finished what is perhaps literary history’s greatest time-killer, Remembrance of Things Past) the first five volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series. He wanted to send the newly published sixth and last volume, but he tells me that hardbacks aren’t allowed in prison: senders could sew something into the bindings. I suggest a softcover advance review copy; Waters makes a joke about a publicist not wanting to send those to a prison, since “it’s not like he’s going to review it for the Prison Times.”

John Waters, Campaign Button, 2004. © John Waters. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein. Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

John Waters, Bill's Stroller, 2014. © John Waters. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery.

After leaving the studio, we drive down the street and into the Hampden neighborhood. Waters drops me off at one of his favorite local spots, Atomic Books. (Anyone curious about the artist’s reading list: In addition to loving Knausgaard, he’s also a big Rachel Cusk fan, and just finished Deborah Eisenberg’s new short story collection.) Waters describes the area around the bookstore as “Brooklyn, New York. It’s the total hipster hip.” Formerly a lower-middle-class neighborhood—and totally racist, according to Waters—it’s gentrified into a chic destination.

Despite the city’s tensions and crime rate (made famous by the locally set television show The Wire), Waters has remained loyal to his birthplace, keeping it as his primary residence and a location for all his films. “Baltimoreans love John. He is adored not only for his creativity, but his commitment to the city,” Hileman tells me. Locals still see him at the supermarket. The hometown exhibition is a coup for both Baltimore and Waters. After all, the city has a unique, offbeat appeal: “I can come home here and go to a demolition derby if I want to,” Waters says. This writer is still a little charmed, in spite of herself.

Alina Cohen

Header Image: John Waters, Beverly Hills John, 2012. © John Waters. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery.