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The sight of kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk is practically guaranteed to induce a session 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 creating lemonade stands. But what adults trapped in reveries about the long, lazy days of childhood might not realize is that sidewalk chalk art is a pastime that connects us not just to memories of our smaller selves, but to a wealthy historical tradition that goes completely back once again to 16th-century Italy.

While people have been using chalk to generate pictures since age cavemen, the Italian traveling artists known as madonnari appear to possess 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 bonus over the other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. Some of them decided to generate 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. They certainly were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna.

As the 2011 book Asphalt Renaissance, compiled by the road artist Kurt Wenner along with 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 town up to World War II. Screevers were less closely associated with religious subject 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 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: “In those days there clearly was a screever almost every twenty-five yards across the Embankment.” But whereas a lot of Bozo’s peers drew a similar thing every single day, Bozo distinguished himself by focusing on something new—a method that he said paid off. “The very best thing’s to keep changing your picture, because when they help you drawing they’ll stop and watch you,” he explained.

Screevers were also memorialized in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins, emerge 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 building 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 part of the 20th century. Then, in 1972, the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone made a decision 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 countless European artists and helping to revive curiosity about sidewalk painting.

Roughly a decade 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 row, then brought his enthusiasm for street painting back once again to the US, launching an annual festival—the initial 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 such varied locales while the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and Serbia; there are options in Australia, Canada, and Mexico, too. So in case you encounter some kids smeared with chalk dust come early july, inform them to help keep at it. There exists a future in sidewalk chalk yet.

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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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