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John Waters
“Beverly Hills John” (2012). Chromogenic print Image: 30 × 20 in. (76.2 × 50.8 cm.) Framed: 36 1/2 × 26 1/2 in. (92.7 × 67.3 cm.)Rubell Family Collection, Miami

Speaking to John Waters about moth memes and finstas

We caught up with the auteur at his Baltimore retrospective to get his thoughts on the latest social trends

I was raised on the work of John Waters. My mother was a background dancer in his hit film CryBaby (1990) and I still know all the words to “Good Morning Baltimore” from the film Hair Spray (1988), thanks to my middle school choir director. 

Indecent Exposure, John Waters’ first retrospective in his hometown of Baltimore Maryland, opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art last week, and I had the privilege of attending the media preview in which he gave the press an artist tour. As an artist who recently put on their own retrospective, the magnitude of showing all your work at once – in your hometown – is not lost on me.

The show itself is a lot to take in, even for those who have been desensitised to Waters’ work. I was expecting to see the literal clutter and colour that Waters is known for, but instead, everything was neatly framed. The show is a mix of videos, images, and sculptures, all saying very lewd, crude, and rude things. There’s “Control”, a very life-like sculpture of a black man puppeteering a black woman. Waters would go on to reveal that this work is his take on the relationship between Ike and Tina Turner. There’s I am Not! a series of tabloid-like headlines from various celebrities exclaiming what they aren’t – OJ Simpson denounces being Jewish and Liz Taylor denounces being black. Kiddie Flamingo is a rework of his classic, Pink Flamingos where the cast is made entirely of kids and all of the adult themes and curse words are taken out.

“This is the new entertainment. But I’m not gonna do that at 72. That’s for you to do” – John Waters

My personal favourites included the series of Study Art!, signs which are Waters’ take on a vintage sign he had grown up seeing in his hometown which advertised a local art school and unironically proclaimed “Study Art! For Profit or Hobby”. Through the exhibit you see that same vintage sign telling the viewer to “Study Art!” but for “Prestige and Spite” or “Fun and Fame”. Studying art for “Prestige” and “Spite” is something I think many of my peers in Baltimore City do and have done. Compared to New York or DC, we’re a bit of an underdog city. The pressure to succeed is palpable in the small art scene here. And those that do succeed, easily find themselves as trailblazers and auteurs.

Artistically Incorrect #1-14 is a series of things the contemporary art world wishes they could say but are too pretentious to speak. Each 4x6 chromogenic print features text over a background not unlike a postcard or a meme. “Your child probably could do this” is my favourite. My most consistent work-study gig in college was at our contemporary art centre. I’ve seen art that I didn’t realise could be labelled as art. I’ve seen people fawn over work that looked eerily similar to what grade school children beg their parents to put on the fridge. I laughed out loud when I realised that John has said what I’m sure many of us feel in regard to the contemporary art world.

Girls Beware is a series of chromogenic prints that start with an illustration of a girl's face, followed by a close up on her doll-like lower body. The final of the four images looks like her vagina is staring straight into your soul.

That work specifically made me think of tumblr. So much of the show would do well online in the suckhole of memes on Instagram. But John Waters is not interested in doing social media. When I asked him about his resistance to it, he responds, “I’m a writer. I’m not giving away my material, or I wouldn’t have anything to put in the books! If every day I put all my jokes and opinions online, I wouldn’t have nothing to sell. I have two spoken word shows, John Waters Christmas and This Filthy World, that I do maybe 40 times a year. I have to constantly update them with new material. And I write books. I just finished a book called Mr. Know it All, which is my opinion on everything. If I just tweet (it), what am I supposed to publish?”

I asked him about making a finsta to keep up with the jokes, and he stressed his 11-hours-a-day work schedule and disinterest in what people are eating for lunch. But he did say that people send him the exceptionally funny memes. So I decided it was the moment to show John Waters some moth memes; the “IT” sewer moth meme and “Thomas Edison Invents Lamp” meme. He chuckled a bit but was generally unimpressed. While he understood the appeal, he didn’t see how people make a living from it. “This is the new entertainment, but I’m not gonna do that at 72. That’s for you to do. You figure out how to take that and turn that in a career. It wouldn’t help me today to do it,” he says. “Ya know, if I was 23, I would probably be doing it. You gotta use what you got and be able to live from it in a way that fits your lifestyle.”