Joshua Hawkins said the request seemed “quite strange,” but the brown-haired man who made it was offering money, and a lot.
The man said his name was Nate and that he wanted Mr. Hawkins, a local artist, to paint a huge Soviet-style mural of Cookie Monster – the voracious, pastry creature of “Sesame Street” – and three words coats on a commercial building in Peoria, Ill.
When the job was done over Thanksgiving weekend, the man paid in full and Mr. Hawkins, 33, proudly displayed the mural on his Facebook page.
But Mr. Hawkins learned that C could also be for Caper.
Within a week of mounting the mural, Mr Hawkins said he got a call from the real Nate Earl, who said he had never ordered the Cookie Monster mural.
He also made his feelings about the mural very clear: he quickly used white paint to cover the wall.
In a brief interview, Mr. Comte expressed his fury at the attention the apparent farce had garnered from national and international media.
“This is not news,” Mr. Comte said, before adding an expletive. “I’ll give you a title: man paints his own building wall.”
Mr Hawkins said Mr Comte threatened to call the police, even after he explained that he was embarrassed. Mr. Hawkins denied having concocted the mural himself.
“I wish I had the patience to pull off this elaborate farce,” he says.
Mr Hawkins, who apologized to Mr Comte on his Facebook page, said he was still trying to determine the true identity of the man who hired him, whom he described as tall, in fit and in their forties. He scoured social media for clues, kept an eye out for Nate’s fake truck, and questioned the connection between the man who hired him and the real Mr. Earl.
“I’m telling you I tried,” Mr. Hawkins said. “I don’t know if it‘s a friend of his or an angry neighbor or a distant relative playing a prank, but it’s curious.
One thing Mr. Hawkins said he was confident about: The fake Nate knew Mr. Comte.
“He knew his building, he knew his name and he knew he was not there,” said Mr. Hawkins.
Around Peoria, a riverside town of about 110,000 people in central Illinois, the episode spawned countless theories about who might have commissioned the mural.
“We just love the mystery of it,” said Jenn Gordon, executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. “Whoever was behind, they certainly put Peoria in the spotlight.”
Mr Comte erased the mural despite the dismay of some members of the local art community, who expressed sadness and even anger over its removal.
Mr Comte told the Journal that he received a “hate mail” for painting over bright colors and Russian words, which put a touch of Cookie Monster on an old Bolshevik slogan, “Peace, land and bread. “.
“Now I’m the bad grinch,” Mr. Earl said.
Mr Comte confirmed that he had created a Facebook page, “Graffiti Replacement Mural”, inviting people to post an image to replace the mural he had whitewashed.
“The owner will select the winning design and hire a local artist to paint it,” the page says.
In retrospect, Mr. Hawkins said, he could have asked more questions. The design request was odd for Peoria, where Mr Hawkins said companies typically commissioned murals of families, town celebrities and animals.
Mr Hawkins said the man had never shown him a permit or proof that he owned the building. He didn’t say what he does for a living and never gave his full name. He only provided the last name Comte in a two sentence email he sent to Mr. Hawkins with a copy of the drawing.
“The drawing is attached,” the email dated November 23 reads. “The designer placed it on a one-foot grid so you could layout it from that image. Sincerely, Nate Comte.
An email sent to the account requesting a comment did not receive a response. No message was left on the voicemail of a phone number provided in the email.
Mr Hawkins said he first met the man at an art show in Peoria about a year and a half ago. He didn’t hear from him again until he called him the week before Thanksgiving to order the mural.
“I was really hesitant at first because it’s a pretty big mural,” Mr. Hawkins said. But the man was offering enough money that Mr. Hawkins could hire a great team to help him.
Mr. Hawkins asked him what the Russian words meant and the man replied, “Peace, land, cookies.”
“I thought he was opening a bakery,” Mr. Hawkins said.
Mr Hawkins said he last saw the man on November 29, when they met for lunch, where Mr Hawkins said he showed him photos of the mural.
Later that day, when the mural was finished, Mr. Hawkins called him and texted him to come see her. The man never responded and Mr. Hawkins said he had not heard from him since. Mr. Hawkins declined to say how much he was paid.
The episode will remind artists to ask more questions of the people commissioning their work, said Ms. Gordon, director of the artistic program.
“It’s a relatively small community, and I think there’s just a little bit of good faith on the part of the artists when they’ve been commissioned to do a piece,” she said.
The neighborhood where Mr. Hawkins painted Cookie Monster is a mix of residential and industrial buildings largely devoid of the colorful murals that dot other parts of the city, said Katy Shackelford, a St. Louis city planner who lived in Peoria for over five years. years and advised on public art installations.
The swift pullback, however, gave the mural and its “cheeky” interpretation of the Bolshevik rallying cry a meaning it might not otherwise have had, Ms Shackelford said.
“I think the message went further because it was temporary,” Ms. Shackelford said. “If he had stayed put over time, people would have been like, ‘Dude, that was a lousy mural.'”
Despite the stress caused by the deception, Mr Hawkins said he was not upset by his mysterious boss, whom he described as an “honest liar”.
In other words: me not angry.
“The guy paid me and he paid me pretty well,” Mr. Hawkins said. “So I’m not mad at all about that.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting and Susan Beachy contributed research.