The origins of pavement art
Written by Philip Battle
Artists often speculate on how street art started; some say it was born out of a folk tradition dating back to the Madonnari’s (street painters) of Italy over 500 years ago. This is a romantic notion that has little bases in fact; it’s a very attractive idea for modern day pavement artists to align themselves with the Italian Renaissance, the high water mark of ‘traditional ’painting and artistry; to feel a connection to Da Vinci or Michelangelo almost as if it were an unbroken thread across time.
But history tells a different story; it could also be a myth to believe that pavement art has been poorly documented; since I’ve been exploring the history of this art form, I’ve found lots of information that has lay dormant or been forgotten about simply because nobody has had the inclination to put this stuff together into an intelligent enough form to tell a story. It’s also true that what people don’t know, they make up. Speculating on the origins of pavement art is like trying to find the origins of cave painting.
My belief is that mankind is a compulsive communicator and mark maker and has been doing this since well before the birth of civilisation. All ‘art’ originates as children; we are almost pre-programed to create images & games in a community context. These things happen with children across the globe without outside influence. As children, we don’t call it art, it’s more like a spontaneous creativity. Give a child a piece of chalk and see what happens…..
I recently heard the story of Sidewalk Sam, who started chalking pavements and creating art in the USA in the early 1970’s. He has been hailed as a folk hero by some and the father of the modern day sidewalk art tradition in America. But of course children in America have been chalking the pavements long before this.
I found this photo taken by renowned photographer Helen Levitt, a boy chalking the pavement in New York in 1937. While teaching some classes in art to children in 1937, Levitt became intrigued with the transitory chalk drawings that were part of the New York children’s street culture of the time. She purchased a Leica camera and began to photograph these works, as well as the children who made them.
On the child chalkers of New York James Agee wrote in 1939: ”All over the city on streets and walks and walls the children . . . have established ancient, essential and ephemeral forms of art, have set forth in chalk and crayon the names and images of their pride, love, preying, scorn, desire. . . .The Lady in this House is Nuts. . . .Lois I have gone up the street. Don’t forget to bring your skates. . . . Ruby loves Max but Max hates Ruby. . . . And drawings, all over, of . . . ships, homes . . . western heroes . . . and monsters . . . which each strong shower effaces.”
These chalk drawings and games became a part of the New York child culture for well over 30 years and this photo ‘Chalk one up’ taken by Arthur Leipzigs in 1950 shows that perfectly. Chalk Games captures several children in their element in Prospect Place Brooklyn, New York. To the modern sophisticated mind this may not appear as ‘art’ but that’s exactly what it is. The children have decided ‘this is our space, and we are taking ownership on it’ naïve drawings compete side by side with ‘made up’ street games. Play and art become one and the same.
At the same time; an ocean away this photo appeared in Daily Herald newspaper on the 14th November, 1941. It shows a group of children drawing a wartime chalk scene on a street pavement in England.
You give children some chalk and they start creating stuff on the sidewalk. The striking thing here is that they do it as a community wherever they are; they create art and games together, a shared experience in a public place. These are the true origins of pavement art, they happen independently; across the world and from different cultures. The adult version of this we call ‘art’ but really it’s just ‘grown-ups’ playing on the streets and creating new forms of ‘Shared experiences’ in a public place.
On the 6th December 1938 Children were photographed in King’s Cross Street London, pushing peanuts along the pavement with their noses in a race to cross the finishing line. This is obviously a chalk game, but what has this got to do with art?
The above photo by Haywood Magee appeared in THE PICTURE POST, UK on 8th April 1950 the caption underneath reads: “Children playing games in the street.” are they just playing or are they creating art?
This brings me up to 1958, the year I was born so it seems appropriate to end this post with an image taken in my home city of Liverpool. The kids are still drawing with chalk on the pavement. But is it art, and more importantly………..
is this were it all started?