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The sight of kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk is practically guaranteed to induce a bout of nostalgia. As summertime traditions go, getting down on the floor to let one’s artistic imagination run wild is right up there with running through sprinklers and setting up lemonade stands. But what adults caught up in reveries about the long, lazy days of childhood may not realize is that sidewalk chalk art is a pastime that connects us not merely to memories of our smaller selves, but to a rich historical tradition that goes completely back to 16th-century Italy.

While people have been using chalk to generate pictures since the age of cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to have been among the earliest practitioners of street art. Robin VanLear, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s director of community arts, explains in an article on the museum’s website

In 16th-century Italy various beggars, primarily amputees, began trying to find a plus over the other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. Many of them decided to generate art , and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. They were rewarded because of their efforts with coins thrown down by pilgrims visiting the cathedrals. Ultimately the more artistic beggars began copying portraits of the Madonna, particularly those by the most popular early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. They were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.

As the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, compiled by the street artist Kurt Wenner along side B. Hansen and M. Hospodar, explains, madonnari realized they might maximize their earnings by working as traveling artists, moving between towns in accordance with religious festival schedules. The Italian tradition continued for centuries, and soon street art began popping up in countries like England and Germany as well.

The English counterparts to madonnari, known as “screevers,” emerged in Victorian London and remained a fixture of the city up until World War II. Screevers were less closely connected with religious subject material, but like the madonnari, they made a managing their ephemeral art.

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In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, an autobiographical book about poverty published in 1933, the writer describes his encounter with a screever named Bozo. A self-declared “serious screever,” Bozo specialized in drawing political cartoons informed by the day’s news. (“Once a young child got its head stuck in the railings of Chelsea Bridge,” Bozo said. “Well, I found out about it, and my cartoon was on the pavement before they’d got the child’s head out of the railings.”) Orwell suggests Bozo had ample competition among London street artists: “At that time there clearly was a screever nearly every twenty-five yards across the Embankment.” But whereas lots of Bozo’s peers drew a similar thing every day, Bozo distinguished himself by taking care of something new—a technique that he said paid off. “The best thing’s to help keep changing your picture, because once they see you drawing they’ll stop and watch you,” he explained.

Screevers were also memorialized in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins, occur Edwardian-era England. In the song “Chim Chim Cheree,” Bert, the twinkly-eyed chimney sweep played by Dick van Dyke, boasts about his side hustle Today I’m a screever, and as you are able to see

A screever’s an artist of’ighest degree
And it’s all me own work from me own memory

Bert is notably less concerned than Bozo about making a living—although same can’t be said about his hat. “No remuneration do I ask of you,” he sings, “But me cap could be glad of a copper or two.”

As VanLear explains, many European street artists fought in World Wars I and II, which meant that the practice of professional sidewalk chalk drawing faded for a good the main 20th century. Then, in 1972, the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone chose to host an international street-painting competition to honor the annals of madonnari. The competition, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a great success, attracting hundreds of European artists and helping to revive interest in sidewalk painting.

Roughly 10 years later, its profile got a further boost from Wenner, who would become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to produce pavement drawings seem to soar from the sidewalk or sink into it. Wenner was studying classical art in Italy in the 1980s and started drawing on pavement as a way to produce money. He eventually made his way to Grazie’s festival, where he took first place four years in a line, then brought his enthusiasm for street painting back to the US, launching an annual festival—the very first in the country—in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, in 1986.

By the time Asphalt Renaissance was published in 2011, the US was home to between 50 and 100 street-painting festivals each year. Europe has also experienced a street-painting festival boom, with events in such varied locales whilst the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and Serbia; you can find options in Australia, Canada, and Mexico, too. So should you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust come july 1st, inform them to keep at it. There’s a future in sidewalk chalk yet.

About Dayana Melton

Dayana Melton
Hello my name is Dayana Melton. I have been working on chalk art for a long time. I will try to explain and show you the experiences I have been working on in chalk art for a long time. If you have any suggestions or questions, you can write to me from the contact section.

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