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

While people have now been using chalk to produce pictures since age 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 a post on the museum’s website

In 16th-century Italy various beggars, primarily amputees, began searching for a bonus over another beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. Some of them decided to create art , and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. They certainly were rewarded due to their efforts with coins thrown down by pilgrims visiting the cathedrals. Ultimately the more artistic beggars began copying portraits of the Madonna, in particular those by the favorite early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. These were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.

Because the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, published by the street artist Kurt Wenner along with B. Hansen and M. Hospodar, explains, madonnari realized they may 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, referred to as “screevers,” emerged in Victorian London and remained a fixture of the city up to World War II. Screevers were less closely connected with religious subject matter, but like the madonnari, they made a coping with 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 learned 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 virtually every twenty-five yards along the Embankment.” But whereas a lot of Bozo’s peers drew the same every single day, Bozo distinguished himself by working on something new—a strategy that he said paid off. “The most effective thing’s to help keep changing your picture, because once they help you drawing they’ll stop and watch you,” he explained.

Screevers were also memorialized in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins, set in 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 can 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 the same can not 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 great area of the 20th century. Then, in 1972, the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone chose to host an international street-painting competition to honor the history of madonnari. The competition, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a great success, attracting countless European artists and helping revive interest in sidewalk painting.

Roughly ten years later, its profile got another boost from Wenner, who’d become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to create 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 three 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 additionally 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 in case you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust come july 1st, let them know to help 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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