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The Street Art History of Sesame Street

Rob Swatski / Flickr / Creative Commons

A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles-based graffiti collective known as The Seventh Letter put together a gallery exhibition themed around Muppets. Forty artists, including the internationally-known Revok, produced more than 100 pieces depicting the iconic citizens of Sesame Street.

Graffiti writers have been using pop culture characters in their work for decades, often as playful (and recognizable) sidekicks to the brightly colored mash of letters. This exhibition clearly showed the influence that Sesame Street had on the graffiti artists, but graffiti has at various times been a character in Sesame Street, as have graffiti writers themselves.

The set and locations of today’s Sesame Street portray a clean city that’s pleasant to live in, a far cry from the earliest days of the show. Graffiti was almost literally everywhere in New York City back then, and it shows in many of the scenes. The commitment of the show to portraying a familiar city to its young audience was so solid, that even the set was painted with graffiti.

But toward the end of the ‘80s, the set became almost gentrified, and you won’t find any graffiti there today. That was also around the time that Elmo moved in-- not that I’m suggesting he had anything to do with it.

In one segment on Sesame Street, the famous “radiant baby” of street artist Keith Haring appeared in a short animation teaching pattern recognition. Haring got his start as a subway painter, but his efficient visual vocabulary, as well as his friendships with Andy Warhol and Basquiat, helped to achieve international success.

For me, the most entertaining appearance of graffiti in Sesame Street is a series about “The Mad Painter.” The painter is a bowler-hat wearing, paint-can carrying vandal’s vandal. In each segment, he paints a single number, and never on a canvas. He is bold and driven, and hits doors, umbrellas, bags, boxes and even the top of a man’s head. There are 10 episodes in the series, and my recommendation is to watch them back to back, imagining this is a single day in the life of the Mad Painter. He finds love, loses love, enjoys camaraderie with a gorilla, if not his fellow citizen, all while carrying out a campaign of graffiti on the city.

In the end…well, no spoilers here. You’ll have to discover that for yourself.