Impersonating a Property Owner, a Man Paid an Artist to Paint a Cookie Monster Mural in Peoria. The Town—and the Internet—Have Questions

The case of the mystery mural commission has gone viral.

The mural that one "Nate Comte" commissioned from Peoria artist Joshua Hawkins. Courtesy of the artist.

Nate Comte, the owner of a commercial building at 1301 NE Adams in Peoria, Illinois, was none too pleased to show up there shortly after Thanksgiving to find a giant Cookie Monster mural on the side of the place, stretching about 30 feet long and 16 feet high. He called up local artist Joshua Hawkins, who had, with the help of some friends, painted the mural over the holiday weekend.

“Are you the one that painted my f*ckin’ building?” he demanded to know, in Hawkins’s recollection. (Comte had gotten the artist’s number from business cards he handed out to passersby during the project.)

Hawkins was shocked. As far as he knew, it was Comte who had commissioned the mural in the first place.

Since the artist first shared his account on Facebook, the case of the Cookie Monster mural has fascinated thousands online. Call it the Monolith effect—art mysteries are in. But so far, this particular mystery remains unsolved.

The artist wasn’t too suspicious when he was approached last month by a man who identified himself as Nate Comte and offered to pay him to paint a mural at number 1301.

“He said he remembered me from an art show a year or two ago, that that’s where I first met him,” Hawkins told Artnet News. “I didn’t think much of it. He said we had talked about getting a mural done on a building of his downtown.”

Maybe Hawkins should have asked more questions, he thinks now. Why did “Comte” need the mural painted so quickly? Why over Thanksgiving weekend? And why was he offering so much money? (Hawkins declines to name the figure but says it was “a good amount. Well worth my time and effort.”)

Work in progress on the mural over Thanksgiving weekend. Photo courtesy Joshua Hawkins.

Work in progress on the mural over Thanksgiving weekend. Photo courtesy Joshua Hawkins.

The fake “Comte” sent Hawkins an image of the mural he wanted painted, according to correspondence reviewed by Artnet News.

From a certain point of view, it was anodyne enough. Cookie Monster, that familiar blue Muppet of Sesame Street fame, holds aloft the beloved eponymous baked good, which shoots forth a rainbow beam. Below, the text reads, “мир, земля, печенье” (“Peace, Land, and Cookies” in Russian).

The composition recalls the drama and bombast of Soviet-style propaganda art, which other street artists often allude to. According to Christine Rank, head of collections at the Wende Museum in California, which preserves artifacts of the Cold War, the text is a reference to the Bolshevik slogan “Peace, Land, and Bread” and the design has “definitive Soviet flair,” with humor that recalls the Sots Art movement of the 1970s.

“It was a bit of a weird image, but some of my paintings are kind of weird so maybe that’s how I captured his eye,” Hawkins says. He figured maybe “Comte” was getting ready to open a bakery in the building, for which the mural would be an advertisement.

The fake landlord met Hawkins in person the day after Thanksgiving, supplying the paint and half the promised fee. They met again a couple of days later for lunch, when the job was mostly done. Hawkins showed him photographs. The patron seemed happy. He sent Hawkins the rest of the (sorry) dough.

But when Hawkins invited him down to see the final result, his client didn’t answer the phone. Hawkins called again. No answer. Hawkins emailed. Again, no answer. “And that’s the last I’ve heard from him,” he says. (Artnet News’s email to the mystery man has, as of press time, languished unanswered, as has a phone message left at a number provided to Hawkins.)

The same wall, once the real Comte got his hands on it. Photo courtesy Joshua Hawkins.

The same wall, once the real Comte got his hands on it. Photo courtesy Joshua Hawkins.

Two days later, Hawkins got a call from the real Comte. And that Comte was not happy.

“What the hell are you painting this weird-ass sh*t on my wall for?” he demanded, according to Hawkins. “So I explained, but he said, ‘I never hired you and I own this damn building. I don’t believe a word of your f*ckin’ lies,’ and he hung up on me.”

The real Comte painted over the mural before Hawkins could get anything better than a few snaps on his phone. All told, his handiwork existed for about a week.

By the time Artnet News reached him, the real Comte said only that he couldn’t comment. He had, however, spoken to the Peoria Journal-Star: “It wasn’t a mural. It was graffiti,” Comte told the paper.

Nevertheless, residents of the city of just over 100,000 are angry at him for painting it over. “Now I’m the evil Grinch and getting hate mail,” he said. The site itself, meanwhile, has become a memorial of sorts, according to a photo posted on Twitter, with mural-loving members of the public leaving behind teddy bears, flowers, and candles.

As for Hawkins’s story of being approached by a mystery man who needed a Soviet-style Cookie Monster mural painted—and fast—Comte told the paper he wasn’t buying it: “I don’t think anyone is that stupid.”

For his part, Hawkins is happy he got out with a weird tale to tell. He hopes Comte has calmed down a bit. “It’s one for the scrapbook, that’s for sure,” he says. Some passersby even took business cards and said maybe he could paint murals on their buildings.

And, well, that’s good enough for him.

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