After a Midtown-Belvedere couple hired Baltimore-based artist Gaia to paint a vibrant mural of the pop culture icon Divine on the side of their three-story home, the artwork’s fate is in question because they did not obtain required permits from the city.
The homeowners are seeking approval for the mural retroactively. Here’s how its fate will be determined:
Who created the mural and why?
Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus Andrew Pisacane, best known as the Baltimore-based street artist Gaia, created the painting of the “Hairspray” star, born Harris Glenn Milstead, on the alley-facing wall of Preston Street home. The mural was commissioned by homeowners Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams about two months ago. The couple said the concept was for people in the LGBT community to see themselves as beautiful.
“We felt like this would be incredible and a great message to the city and to the LGBT community and a tribute to Divine,” Salazar said.
The image of Divine, complete with his thin eyebrows and flowing hair, is adapted from the performer’s cover for his 1984 single “I’m So Beautiful.”
The late drag queen and performer was known for his roles in John Waters films, including “Pink Flamingos.” He infamously ate dog feces during one scene in the film, shot just blocks away from his new mural.
Milstead died in 1988, shortly after “Hairspray” was released.
What’s the issue?
Salazar and Williams hadn’t received permits or authorization for the mural from the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), which is required when altering the exterior of properties within Baltimore’s historic districts or local landmarks, according to Eric Holcomb, the commission’s executive director.
Holcomb said the commission heard about the mural first from a writer inquiring whether the commission had approved of the mural. The commission then sent a city inspector to investigate.
Salazar said he and Williams had read city guidelines before having the mural created, but “didn’t feel that it was clear what was needed around art.” He added that he made sure to preserve the historic home’s brick, and has since submitted the “authorization-to-proceed” application required by CHAP, which is now under review, according to Holcomb.
CHAP will review the mural to approve or disapprove it.
Holcomb said that CHAP staff can typically approve minor projects internally — they review around 100 a month — while major projects must go before the “full commission.”
If staff decides to take the mural to the full commission, there will be a public hearing with thorough presentations and research presented by staff and testimonies from any of the mural’s stakeholders.
The commission will then deliberate whether they disapprove or approve of the mural as is, or require additional conditions.
The hope is to have a decision about the next steps by Tuesday, said Holcomb, who added that this isn’t the first time that someone has retroactively applied for authorization or sought approval for a mural.
What if a public artwork or mural is not approved?
If the commission disapproves of a mural, the property applicant has to change or remove it, according to Holcomb. If they refuse, they can later be taken to housing court, where a judge will decide what they need to do next.
In some instances, property owners have been asked to remove disapproved alterations.
What is the expected outcome?
The outcome is undetermined, but according to Holcomb, the art itself is not a problem.
“We’re not going to review the content of this artwork because we respect art that much,” Holcomb said of CHAP. “The idea that we are the judges and arbiters of art and historic districts is not what we do. We are there to preserve and make sure that the changes in the neighborhood respect the historic architecture and character of the neighborhood.”
Beyond the regulatory trouble, how has the community reacted to the mural?
The mural has garnered warm responses from Baltimore and beyond, including from John Waters, who visited the mural earlier this week.
“I think Preston Street now has the ultimate Neighborhood Watch,” Waters wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “No crime will happen with Divine on duty.”
Salazar said the reactions have been heartwarming.
“I'm truly touched that this positive message about LGBT history and the LGBT community has gotten such a warm response. … At a time when LGBT rights are under threat, we felt that this mural would send a clear sign of the beauty of the LGBT community.”
Is the mural a replacement for the Divine monument?
Salazar and Williams are not affiliated with prior efforts to build a Divine monument in the neighborhood.
Around three years ago, the Baltimore’s Public Art Commission approved a design for a Divine monument, but in 2016, a group spearheading the efforts failed to raise enough money on Kickstarter to fund the project, which was estimated to cost $70,000.
The proposed monument — an arch estimated to be around 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide — would have been on the corner of Read and Tysons streets and would have featured a laser-etched portrait of Divine staring out from underneath the arch, perched atop two classically Baltimore marble steps. A small bronze representation of the dog droppings would rest upon the top step.
Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.
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