The streets of Mill Valley, California, have been quiet lately. No cars driving by, no humans babbling along, no cafes humming with the promise of caffeine and social interaction. Sheltered in place since March 19, many working adults in this county have embraced Zoom meetings, and children are still grappling with social distancing and canceled birthday parties. But give a family some chalk, and you will see the streets come to life again.
From California to Tennessee to Wisconsin to New Jersey, chalk art is having a moment. With schools closed until further notice (and many unlikely to reopen this academic year), homebound children are taking chalk sticks to the streets. Here in Mill Valley, sidewalks and driveways are bursting with games of hopscotch—some as long as 82 tiles—and hopeful messages like “we can do it” or “we got this.” Drawing on the driveway is an activity for moments of boredom, but beneath that boredom lies a more visceral need to comfort and connect with one another. And sidewalks, which urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs called “the main public places of the city” and “its most vital organ,” have emerged as the perfect canvas for boosting neighborhood morale, one chalk drawing at a time.
“Typically, when you make artwork, you don’t really make it with someone else. With the chalk, there is a collaborative element,” says designer Nikolas Bentel, who upped the chalk game two years ago by reinventing the ubiquitous chalk stick with his set of whimsical, three-dimensional chalk figurines. Designed to draw original patterns in playful ways like rolling, rotating, or pushing the chalk, Bentel’s so-called Moon Chalk, launched through a Kickstarter campaign, has helped redefine the function of chalk as not only a drawing tool, but also a toy that can help children engage with each other and with the architecture around them. “What is the value of a toy in a quarantine?” Bentel asks. “To a parent, I think it’s extremely valuable.”
And as museums around the world have begun documenting life on lockdown by collecting photographs of empty streets and asking citizens to keep diaries, parents have been doing their part by taking to Instagram. “Be like the Mandalorian. Never take your mask off in public!” reads one chalk drawing in Milwaukee, alongside a pastel blue sketch of Baby Yoda. “We’ll Rise UP!” reads another in Laguna Beach, California.
Colorful renditions of Rosie the Riveter, the cultural icon that became a symbol for unity and resolve during World War II, are making a recurring appearance, too. In Columbus, Ohio, a 15-year-old student has even drawn a 2020 version of Rosie wearing a mask. Having transcended time and place, Rosie is becoming a renewed symbol of resilience. Meanwhile, chalk art has evolved from a summertime pastime to an important creative outlet for children in quarantine.
In fact, chalk art has always had a purpose beyond beautifying the streets. While the earliest form of chalk art dates back to the Stone Age, the street art tradition originated in 16th-century Italy, where drifting artists, known as the Madonnari, made a living traveling from village to village and recreating pictures of the Madonna on the pavement. The practice continued for centuries.
Around the mid-1880s, a street art movement emerged independently in Victorian England, where artists, this time called “screevers,” graced the pavement with their ephemeral art. Unlike the art of the Madonnari, the works of screevers were often accompanied by poems and proverbs with a moral or political slant. As Fiona McDonald writes in her book The Popular History of Graffiti: From the Ancient World to the Present, “The idea was to produce a brilliant text in beautiful writing that would catch the eye of a wealthy passer-by, who would then pay a few pennies as a reward for the public sentiment and the benefit of all society.”
As many artists went on to fight in World War II, the street art tradition in Europe went into remission for a good part of the 20th century. Then came the International Madonnari Festival in the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone. Launched in 1972, the street-painting competition drew hundreds of European artists in what was the first of many similar festivals around the world.
Chalk art made its way to the United States in the late 20th century, largely driven by internet sensation Kurt Wenner. Credited as the inventor of 3D pavement art, Wenner started the first pavement art festival in the country in 1986. Since then, an increasing number of artists (as many as 200 in 2019) have gathered every year to draw elaborate chalk compositions on the sunny plaza at the Old Mission Santa Barbara, a fitting location for a tradition rooted in religious art.
Today there are between 50 and 100 chalk art festivals in the U.S. alone, many of which will no doubt be affected by social-distancing requirements and varying stay-at-home orders across the country. In Florida, the Sarasota Chalk Festival, which runs from March 6 to May 31 and draws as many as 200,000 guests every year, has closed through April. (The organizers built social-distancing etiquette, including a daily visitor cap, into the festival’s first 3D Illusion Museum should the festival be able to reopen in May.)
In Knoxville, Tennessee, the annual Chalk Walk in Market Square event, due to run on April 4, has been postponed indefinitely. Instead, nonprofit organization Dogwood Arts has encouraged artists of all ages to create chalk art in their driveways and sidewalks in the form of a virtual Chalk Walk competition. Among the submissions, there is a giant 3D Purell bottle, a chalk poster of Wayne’s World captioned “Stay Home and Party On,” and an Easter-inspired patchwork of triangles reminiscent of a stained-glass church window.
The chalk art festival season will have to reinvent itself this summer—and so will we—but it seems that a festival of an altogether different amplitude is taking over our sidewalks. And in these lonely times, when hugs have become air hugs and play dates are a distant dream, this may just be the best way to stay connected.