Betty White, Beloved Comedian (and Street Art Icon), R.I.P

It is hard to pinpoint the precise moment a star becomes beloved currency in culture but perhaps one of the flashpoints is the day they become street art.

Gilf! homage to Betty White on the streets of NYC from 2011. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

For us the realization that Betty White had transcended the realm of popular comedy actress to a scale bordering on icon when then-new street artist GILF appropriated her visage for a simple one-color stencil sometime in the late 2000s.

Not avid television watchers, we were of course aware of her roles in the sitcoms of the 70s and 80s, and that over time The Golden Girls program was taking on a cult-like glow among certain campy sectors.

But when we first saw a GILF! tag in Bushwick, Brooklyn, sprayed on the street, we knew Betty had crossed over into a beloved pop culture family member. Maybe she reminded you of your aunt, or the Home Economics teacher in junior high, or a sales representative at the jewelry counter at a department store, or behind the glass at the movie theater, or the nice lady setting out a pleasant picnic on the grass near the fountain in Central Park, or the grandmother you might like to have – even if for one afternoon.

Everyone knew someone like Betty White who was raised in a different era, who smelled nice, had a teased cotton-candy cloud of a hairdo and wore a smart blouse and a smart mouth with equal panache.  Sweet, but sharp, her delivery featured an  innate polished sixth sense of comic timing – making you spit your soda out through your nose – a sudden pokerfaced barb that was almost blue, delivered without sullying anyone in the room

She made it 99.9 years, which is more than any of us have, and she kept her style and her sharp wit, and many across the culture grew to love her in one way or another – a link to a time, or a part of the past, that we appreciated. Of the thousands of tributes pouring in on social media since she passed away on December 31, one sentiment sticks with us. While we’re sad to see her go, at least many people got to tell Betty White that they loved her while she was still alive.