The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo

From its start in Massachusetts, of all places, to its inspiration of a John Waters film, the lawn ornament has some staying power

By Abigail Tucker (Smithsonian magazine, 9/2012)

From The Smithsonian Collections: Plastic Flamingos. c. 1980, photo by Jason Petra

John Waters’ childhood yard was an exercise in good taste. His mother, the president of a local garden club, cultivated burgeoning flowerbeds and precise hedges. In their buttoned-up Maryland suburb, of any kind, let alone plastic pink flamingos, were anathema. One house down the street had a fake wishing well and that was painful enough.

“I don’t remember ever seeing a pink flamingo where I grew up,” the filmmaker muses. “I think I saw them in East Baltimore.”

In 1972, Waters released the Pink Flamingos, which was called both an abomination and an instant classic. The movie has almost nothing to do with the tropical fowl that stand sentinel during the opening credits: The plot mostly concerns the exertions of a brazen and voluptuous drag queen intent on preserving her status as “the filthiest person alive.”

“The reason I called it ‘Pink Flamingos’ was because the movie was so outrageous that we wanted to have a very normal title that wasn’t exploitative,” Waters says. “To this day, I’m convinced that people think it’s a movie about Florida.” Waters enjoyed the plastic knickknack’s earnest air: Though his own stylish mom might have disapproved, the day-glo wading birds were, back then, a straightforward attempt at working-class neighborhood beautification. “The only people who had them had them for real, without irony,” Waters says. “My movie wrecked that.” Forty years later, the sculptures have become unlikely fixtures of a certain kind of high-end sensibility, a shorthand for tongue-in-cheek tackiness.

Continue reading “The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo” at Smithsonian magazine.

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