Beyond “Crab Cake Capital of the World,” one of Baltimore’s best-known nicknames is “The Monument City.” And one of the city’s most notable features is its wealth of behemoth effigies, with General Pulaski kicking it in the same city as Billie Holiday, Martin Luther, Babe Ruth, and a whole bunch of Confederate sculptures whose future is currently being debated within Baltimore’s municipal government.
What it means to monumentalize something, and whether some monuments should be reconsidered or simply eradicated, has become a big subject of conversation in Baltimore. That might partially explain why recent news of the plans for an eight-foot-tall shrine to Divine (and originally, strictly her dog-shit eating Pink Flamingos scene) was met with so much enthusiasm, conjuring mimetic shit-eating grins from Divine fans across the Internet. (Inevitably, that enthusiasm was also paired with disdain from ultra-conservatives who were outraged by the city’s threat to Confederate monuments).
The proposed monument is a large, formal marble segmental arch, with a dramatic image of Divine’s — aka Harris Glenn Milstead’s — made-up face peeking out of it. It’d be in keeping with the historically reverent architecture of monuments… but for the fact that its subject would be a drag queen who notoriously vied, in Pink Flamingos, for the title of “filthiest person alive,” and that the sculpture would be besmirched by a diminutive pile of bronze dog-shit pellets (accompanied, now, by a few other objects). This devotional artwork comes with a massive price tag, too — at $70,000, the monument will cost seven times as much as to make as Pink Flamingos itself, a number that could either be seen as extravagant or as exactly what’s needed imbue “trash” culture with the financial veneration usually reserved for war heroes and high-brow artists. And so, with the project’s glorious outrageousness comes an outrageous budget, which the creators need to raise on Kickstarter by March 26.
The project began with Michal Makarovich, the owner of Hampden Junque antique shop in Baltimore, and Alex Fox, a young, Ohio transplant who was inspired to move to Baltimore after watching Pink Flamingos secretly with his Jehovas Witness friend, and who created the Church & Company event space in a restored church from 1875, which he also inhabits. They teamed up with Iranian writer Parisa Saranj; Baltimore sculptors David Hess and Sebastian Martorana; a software engineer; a teacher; and the filmmaker behind the Sundance award-winning documentary Divine Trash. It’s an effort that’s just as much about community (drinking) and companionship (drinking) as it is about sticking a colossal face on the side of a wall, with small, glistening turds beneath it.
I spoke over the telephone (separately) with Makarovich — who could very well be a John Waters character, speaking with the glee of a hundred tchotchkes trying to tell their own stories — and Fox last week. But days ago, the two were still fighting battles both internal and external to maintain the crass minimalism of their proposed idea: the massive Divine, the tiny turds. And since some fans critiqued the concept — noting that Divine ultimately grew tired of having his legacy affiliated with that scene — they sent me an email after our conversation, with the following update:
We acknowledge that many in the Divine fan base want more of a tribute than just the doggy-doo reference. So [we’ve] decided to expand the scope. On the marble steps, in addition to the reference to the [bronze dog poops], are [also] plans for other objects: cha-cha heels (Female Trouble), an iron (Hairspray), and a tube of lipstick (drag performances).
The story behind the Divine memorial is both filthy and sweet, dysfunctional and quirky: a seeming testament to what these people want to assert Baltimore, and particularly Divine’s and John Waters’ Baltimore, is all about. Read what Makarovich and Fox have to say about the project below.
Flavorwire: How does this project speak to your personal histories with Baltimore? Obviously John Waters’ films were laden with kitsch fetishism, and Michal, you happen to be the owner of Hampden Junque, whose very name implies that trash can be beautiful.
Michal Makarovich: I followed John Waters’ films right from the beginning — when I moved out of my parents’ house and got an apartment in town. The first really big notice of Divine was probably in Multiple Maniacs, where she gets raped by the lobster, and I was like, “This is it.” For a while I was a film critic for an underground Baltimore journal, and I think I wrote one of the first reviews of Pink Flamingos. And I loved how, in the film, the sets and the costumes and a lot of it seemed to be recycled, trashy stuff. I love that we celebrated that trash was wonderful. And about 20 years ago I started my own junk shop. In addition to seeing the films and reading about them as time went on, I would also see the John Waters crowd hanging out in bars. Divine would be there — usually a very quiet man sitting in a corner. Very shy. But once that makeup came on, this was a wild person. It was inspiring to those of us who were shy.
Alex Fox: Pink Flamingos opened my mind to what Baltimore could be. The idea of kitsch and that aesthetic generally have had a major impact on the culture here. The whole neighborhood that we live in — people capitalize on it, there’s a restaurant that has giant flamingo inside of it. It’s something people really come to own here.
There’s been some outrage in Baltimore’s conservative communities, who seem pissed that their Confederate monument is being threatened while a monument to Divine might be erected.
Makarovich: I got a phone call today from a bigot who used to live in Baltimore, but he now lives in West Virginia. He asked why we would honor a drag queen (I know of no other drag queen monuments), saying we’re just pleasing the LBGTQ community, and why encourage those people, etc. “We are not just getting support from other queers, but from all over,” I told him. And to respond to his criticism that it sounded “tasteless,” I said, “That’s what we’re going for.” We are not showing disrespect to the iconoclasts Divine and Waters, but exalting their Baltimore tastelessness in their manner. We hope this project leads to other funky monuments to Baltimoreans: Mama Cass Elliot, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who helped take prayer out of public schools in 1963) — maybe even modern heroes like Tupac Shakur.
How did your group of six — plus the two artists involved — assemble?
Makarovich: Alex and I were getting drunk one night, and we were talking about all these people coming into my shop over the years, saying, “We want to see where Divine ate dog shit, and we want to take our pictures next to that.”
Fox: I’d been in Michal’s shop once — everybody knows him. A friend of mine recently referred to him as a “poor man’s Andy Warhol.” He’s a very memorable person. I’d met and become friends with him at this divey gay bar, a block away from where the monument will be. The idea originally was that it’d just be bronze dog shit — just something people would stumble upon as a historical marker. And then it became much bigger.
Makarovich: This 29-year-old Iranian girl named Parisa came in my shop, and she saw I had a framed photo of Billie Holiday out front. And she said, “Oh, Billie Holiday — I love her! We did not have Billie Holiday in Iran. I would go to bed with her.” And I said, “You talk that way in Iran, they’ll cut your tits off.” And she laughed, and we became friends immediately — that’s how I bond with people. A few months later, Parisa came in and said, “My boyfriend Nate and I watched a movie last night. Have you ever seen Pink Flamingos?” She’s written a book about the morality police in Iran using Kickstarter. So here was someone who knew Kickstarter and loved this film. So we had a third person.
Then I went to a party with a friend, and there was this guy with a shaved head that was so interesting, and we struck up a conversation, and it turned out to be this magnificent sculptor, David Hess. So I came home from this party, drunk, of course, and stoned. In the middle of the night I wrote him this message: “Great to meet you, you’re a wonderful, modest, brilliant person, why don’t you do something shameful for a change?” And in the morning, when I got up, there was a message: “I’d love to be a part of this.”
And one night, Dave and Alex and my friend Steve Yeager and I were getting drunk at my apartment. And Dave said, “Let’s go down and look at the site.” And so we went down, and we said, “This may have been the exact spot,” but Dave looked around and he said, “HERE. Here is where it should be.” And fortunately, I used to sleep with the guy who owned the building, Mike Pugh. And the next day, Mike said, “Great, put it on my wall.” It’s a tiny, little alley that we hope people will make pilgrimages to.
Why did you originally decide to focus on the shit-eating scene, despite the fact that Divine may not have been too happy having that be the subject of his memorial?
Makarovich: The project grew out of all those inquiries of where Divine had this famous scene. I understand that it’s something Divine got tired of talking about as her career went on, and I think John Waters got tired of talking about it. Though he has said, “Even if I discover a cure for cancer, my obituary will start with, ‘This is the director who made an actor eat dog doo.’” We’re torn also: Are we doing the right thing about this? I think that because it’s going to be in the exact location where that scene is filmed, to not have any reference to that seems like we’ve wimped out.
Talk to me about the grandiosity of the monument and the materials it incorporates.
Makarovich: One idea was for it to be really sloppy, filthy, and disgusting… I thought that was maybe pushing it too far.
Fox: David Hess came up with this idea of doing an enclave and wanted to use a bathtub. But I was persistent that it should be an ode to a classical monument. I really wanted it to be made of marble. In Baltimore, white marble steps are an iconic thing.
Makarovich: This would be such an ironic contrast. We’re a monumental city, but it’s not meant to be this Victorian, serious thing.
Fox: The neighborhood it’s in [Mount Vernon] — the Washington Monument is there. It’s a gorgeous place, and what’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful public squares in the country is near there. I wanted it to be in line with the architecture of the neighborhood. And then there’s the dog shit. In the ’50s it was the beatnik neighborhood, and in the past 20 years it’s been riddled with abandoned storefronts, and we want people to know what happened in the neighborhood, because we think it’ll have a really good impact on it.
And you ultimately decided to get the city involved, despite the monument technically being on private property?
Fox: We wanted to keep an open dialogue with the city.
Makarovich: We went to this big, tall office building and there were nine people from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. When we were finished, the first person to speak was this tall, sophisticated, intimidating woman with a Susan Sontag gray streak in her hair. And she goes to speak, and she looked at us and she said, “I am appalled… that no one has thought of this before.” And they went around the table, and every single one of the nine members were so enthusiastic. It was unanimous. And then, when the Baltimore Sun wrote about it, all hell broke loose. I was seeing that it was in the Seattle Times, and in Atlanta, and Germany, and your publication, and it’s like, “Whoa, it exploded.” The problem is, we didn’t have the Kickstarter ready as all the news was going about the world, and what’s happened now that’s really been worrisome to us is we’ve made it to $8,000 out of the $70,000 goal.
Why take the risk on setting the Kickstarter goal so high? Does the project need to be this expensive?
Makarovich: We’re so happy that there’s this international enthusiasm, but it’s not yet translated into donations. The enthusiasm from the people we spoke about it with locally was so great that we thought, “Why not make this bigger? Why not make this monumental? Because we’re easily going to get the money.” And so we thought really big, that when people turn the corner and see this, it’d be like Divine saying, “Motherfucker, I’m here.”