Mysterious stranger poses as Illinois building owner to commission Soviet-style Cookie Monster mural
Joshua Hawkins still has no idea who paid him to paint the short-lived artwork in Peoria
Joshua Hawkins still has no idea who hired him to paint a mural of the Cookie Monster on a commercial building in Peoria, Ill. — but it sure wasn't the owner.
The Illinois artist says a man purporting to be the property owner commissioned him to realize a very specific artistic vision, reminiscent of a Soviet-era propaganda poster, of the beloved Sesame Street character holding up a cookie shooting a rainbow over a cityscape with the Russian words, "Peace. Land. Cookies."
"I asked him for the backstory, and he just said, 'Well, this is what I like, and this is what I want,' and then he left it at that," Hawkins told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"The guy, he contacted me, and we met twice. So I'd know him if I saw him, but apparently he gave me a fake name, as I found out. And so I still have no idea who he is."
Hawkins says he finished the job Sunday after American Thanksgiving. Three days later, the building's actual owner called him. He got Hawkins' number from some business cards he'd passed out while he was painting.
"He got pretty irate and sent a few choice words my way. And I thought at first it was a prank," Hawkins said.
"And then as the phone conversation went on, he had threatened to call the police and press charges on me. Then that's when I kind of realized, OK, maybe he's not pranking then. I offered to paint over it for him and he told me he didn't believe a word of my lies, then said a few more choice words and hung up the phone on me."
The owner, Nate Comte, told the Peoria Journal Star that he didn't give anyone money or permission to paint his building.
He has since covered it with a coat of white paint, and now he says residents who liked the mural are giving him hell.
"It wasn't a mural. It was graffiti," he said. "Now I'm the evil Grinch and getting hate mail."
Hawkins says he can see the owner's point of view, and understands why he wouldn't believe the artist's story.
"I get it. It's the guy's building. He owns it and obviously he didn't want the painting on there. But it's still kind of disheartening to see all these hours of work, just painted over," he said.
"But one thing I have learned is if someone commissions me for a mural, to push harder on questions and make sure they actually own the building."
Still, at the end of the day, he got paid — in cold, hard cash.
"He paid pretty well. He actually paid over what I normally ask."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Joshua Hawkins produced by Tomas Urbina.