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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 creating lemonade stands. But what adults trapped in reveries about the long, lazy days of childhood may 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 entirely back to 16th-century Italy.

While people have now been using chalk to produce pictures since the age of cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to have been among the initial 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 benefit over one other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. A number of them decided to create art , and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. These 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, in particular those by the popular early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. These were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.

As the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, compiled by the road 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 according to 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 town until World War II. Screevers were less closely connected with religious material, but like the madonnari, they made a living 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 kid 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: “During those times there is a screever virtually every twenty-five yards along the Embankment.” But whereas lots of Bozo’s peers drew the same thing every single day, Bozo distinguished himself by focusing on something new—a technique that he said paid off. “The best thing’s to 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, 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 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 building a living—although the same can’t be said about his hat. “No remuneration do I ask of you,” he sings, “But me cap will 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 an excellent the main 20th century. Then, in 1972, the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone decided to host an international street-painting competition to honor the real history of madonnari. Your competitors, known as Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, was a great success, attracting a huge selection of European artists and helping revive curiosity about sidewalk painting.

Roughly ten years later, its profile got a further boost from Wenner, who’d become the founder of 3D street art—a technique that uses tricks of perspective to make pavement drawings appear 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 means to make money. He eventually made his solution to Grazie’s festival, where he took first place 36 months in a line, then brought his enthusiasm for street painting back once again to the US, launching an annual festival—the 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 in addition has experienced a street-painting festival boom, with events in such varied locales as 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 this summer, let them know to keep at it. There exists 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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