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John Waters interview

The Pope of Trash tells us about his first London exhibition

Written by
Sonya Barber

Although best know as the maverick pencil mustachioed filmmaker behind notorious lo-fi cult classics like ‘Pink Flamingos’, and more mainstream family fun including ‘Hairspray’, John Waters hasn’t actually made a feature film in over ten years. Instead, these days he channels his sardonic social commentary into writing and artworks.

This is Water's first London show and it’s a continuation of his studies in bad taste, sex, death, depravity and celebrity. How can the man who was once crowned the Pope of Trash continue his reign of shock and subversion when NSFW has become the norm? By trying to make people laugh and see things in a different way, John reckons. The 69-year-old Grandfather of Filth talks us through seven of the key works on show.

Seven of the show's highlights

‘Beverly Hills John’, 2012
© John Waters

1. ‘Beverly Hills John’, 2012

‘Throughout my career I’ve always had to reinvent myself, so this is the ultimate reinvention. I know many people in LA who look like this. They all look like aliens. It’s the same doctor, so they all look like a special breed of people who are ageless and freakish. The only good plastic surgery is the one you don’t notice! I haven’t had any. The only thing you can do when you get older is have something weird on your face and wear weird shoes so people don’t look at the middle.’
‘Cancel Ansel’, 2014
© John Waters, courtesy Sprüth Magers

2. ‘Cancel Ansel’, 2014

‘Ansel Adam’s work was originally why photography was accepted as art. So, contemporary art’s job is to go back and wreck what he did. I added in things that might really be there today – who knows if a cruise ship hasn’t come in that lake or there are fat Americans swimming? All of that could happen. I only make fun of things I like. I send up of the art world but I love it and I’m a participant in it. There was no irony in those original pictures. I’m an irony dealer. Sometimes I feel guilty about it: not here, though.’
‘Bill’s Stroller’, 2014
© John Waters, courtesy Sprüth Magers

3. ‘Bill’s Stroller’, 2014

‘All the gay neighbourhoods used to be full of sex clubs, and now in the same places, gay people have baby carriages and children. When those clubs were around, even the idea of gay people having children was laughable, as everyone thought they were too busy having sex. But then Aids happened, so the same neighbourhoods are still gay but it is one hundred percent the opposite. I have a fake angry son with bad hair called “Bill”. Everybody thought gay people should have children so I had one made. It took longer than nine months. He never cries because he knows no one will ever come. I never take him out, but if I did this would be his stroller. It’s putting those two worlds together – this is progress.’
‘Self Portrait #5 (Dog Catcher)’, 2012
© John Waters, courtesy Sprüth Magers

4. ‘Self Portrait #5 (Dog Catcher)’, 2012

‘I live in a tiny beach community called Provincetown in the summer which is often voted the most dog-friendly town in America. In my opinion, too dog-friendly. I fantasise about having a tranquiliser gun. So for a self-portrait, I wanted be something funny that’s also really hated. I’m never just trying to shock, I’m trying to make you laugh. That’s more daring.’
‘Kiddie Flamingos’, 2014
© John Waters, courtesy Sprüth Magers

5. ‘Kiddie Flamingos’, 2014

‘Everybody tries to make disgusting movies now, so I did the opposite by taking my most disgusting movie and becoming my worst enemy – the censor, someone who would make “Pink Flamingos” for children. It’s the only thing I could think of to be new. If you can make audiences feel guilty for imagining children saying things they don’t actually say, then that’s doubly perverse. It was the only way to be new and shock myself.’
'Hairball', 2014
© John Waters, courtesy Sprüth Magers

6. 'Hairball', 2014

'I think porn influences bodily hair fads and now chest hair is coming back, and hair in general. I’ve seen porn with overly hairy women, which is really bizarre - a fetish I didn’t know about. So I’m not only seeing that bodies have become trendy, but hair too, whether you’re a bear or a twink or a new term, a dolphin (a bear who shaves and is more ‘nelly’).'
‘THIMK’, 2014
© John Waters, courtesy Sprüth Magers

7. ‘THIMK’, 2014

‘“Think” was a hugely successful ad campaign by the IBM Corporation in the 1950s. Everybody had a little sign on their desk which said “THINK”, then Mad magazine put out one called “THIMK”. I have this in my office and it reminds me to get back to work and thimk up fucked-up things. That’s my job! It’s a motivational tool.’
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