What I’ve Learned About Humanity as a Pavement Artist

Chalk Riot freestyling at North Beach Festival in San Francisco, 2017

Chalk art and I found each other on a St. Louis sidewalk in 2013, and it was complete love at first draw. Until then, I had been painting mainly interior murals that were always catered to clients’ visions of landscapes and trompe l’oeil windows. To feed my creativity, I was lucky to retreat every so often to the St. Louis Floodwall, but ultimately I was hunting an art site that was immersed in the bustle. What’s the point of creating in public, if the general public doesn’t see it? With a box of chalk, I realized my art was no longer limited to walls, and that the biggest (and perhaps most underrated) canvas had been beneath my feet the whole time.

Drawing on pavement satisfies a primal need to tell stories on surrounding surfaces, an innate desire that surely hails from my ancestors or Keith Haring’s angel choir or whatever. I learned there were basically no laws against it in my city, passersby decided that giving me money is cool, and that squatting all day while drawing replaced #legday at the gym. The greatest benefit of all? What I’ve learned about humanity while creating at their feet.

Buskers use the term “pitch” for where they will set up their performance; to chalk artists, our pitch is where we create a sidewalk mural. My favorite pitches are in areas that receive waves of high foot traffic, and are around local landmark destinations. And after chalking in dozens of cities and six countries since 2013, here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • Most people are completely unaware of their surroundings, and especially of what’s right under their noses. For every one person that stops to look at the artwork, a dozen will step right over it, on it, through it, on my fingers, trip over my bag, trip over orange cones, and crush the chalks under their feet. The vast majority of people not only do not notice when this happens, but when they do, fail to notice there is a human right there. That being said, because of this, it is even more enjoyable when people do stop to appreciate the art!
  • Cash is becoming increasingly obsolete in wealthy areas. In cities of predominant wealth and substantial tech industries, people tip me more in Venmo or Square Cash transfers than in cash! A sign of the times, indeed. These days, I always put my Venmo handle on my tip hat when busking in major cities.
  • Chalk is nostalgic AF! Art often evokes memories regardless of medium, however no other medium is as tied to childhood as sidewalk chalk. Not only are my technicolor chalks completely irresistible to kids, but their parents often ask to hold a piece of chalk, to investigate it, and even occasionally doodle a chunk of their own sidewalk nearby. When interested adults see me chalking, they will often start to share stories of how they, too, enjoyed chalk art once — on the their sidewalks, basketball courts, driveways. Inevitably, this leads to my next point:
  • Everyone has stories they want to share. Perhaps it is because being on my hands and knees makes me more approachable. Perhaps it’s because I look like I’m having fun. Maybe it’s because people respond to colors in unexpected places, or my innate midwestern amiability. All I know for certain is that being a pavement artist means being a sponge for hundreds of stories from strangers! It’s usually the more introverted types, that linger for a while before saying anything at all, that want to have the longest conversations. I inevitably have many conversations with homeless folks no matter where I am, and am here to tell the world: homelessness can happen to literally anyone. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about local politics from activists that want me to chalk their issues. I’ve heard about embarrassing moments, personal ambitions, money troubles, addiction recoveries, love affairs, and even comforted a woman immediately after her abortion. Oh, the stories I’ve been trusted with.
  • Men still treat women like shit (shocker, I know).
    As a woman, my guards are at their highest when I am chalking. I’ve learned to ignore the catcalls, I never smile when asked (often), but I cannot ignore a man forcibly shoving a $20 bill down the front of my shirt. In that circumstance, I jumped up and yelled “HELP, ASSAULT!” and a citizen’s arrest and a few punches were promptly unleashed on the guy until police arrived to arrest him. While drawing on the pavement, my back is to the world. And though vulnerable, I have also learned I can trust on the kindness of strangers to protect me if ever needed. I say this while acknowledging my white privilege, and it’s unsettling to imagine the outcome of several scenarios I’ve survived had it been an artist of color in jeopardy.
  • Phones are enhancing people’s abilities to share their day, and to advocate for street art.
    Some street artists I know are skeptical of people that immediately pull out their phone to document art, but I see it as nothing but beneficial. If they’re in a hurry, they can snap a photo to enjoy the artwork later. People will share my location and artwork on their stories with captions of “go check it out!” and “Chalk Riot throwing down!” and encourage more visitors. I’ve had professional photographers send me free, high-quality portfolio shots that they sneakily took without my knowing. And, you never know when the occasional social media influencer will swing through! With how ephemeral this art form is, it’s endlessly amazing that people can capture it on their pocket-size computers. Which reminds me of my next observation:
  • There are two approaches to handling big changes: 1) Embrace change or 2) resist change
    It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, the weather forecast, or what time of day it is, the ever-persistent question that infiltrates chalk artists’ existence is “but what if it rains?!” While the psychology behind the general population’s attachments to tangible things they enjoy deserves an entirely separate essay, it’s worth mentioning here. To me, there is freedom in creating something that will surely get destroyed. It’s a reminder that our time on this earth is temporary, to savor each moment. If it rains, I shrug my shoulders and move on; change is constant, plans are made to be broken, we cannot predict the weather (though we try). While chalking, it is one of my greatest joys to share this conversation with complete strangers. People offer ideas, “what about a sealer?” and “Could you take a photo and then paint it onto the sidewalk after it washes away?” I smile and say “nope” or ask “why would I do that?” Some people mourn transitions, no matter how small, and resist new phases for as long as possible. Others embrace such times, refusing to look back. These two approaches to life are reflected in people’s responses to chalk art.
  • Art has the power to transform someone’s day. Public art is important and its censorship is not. Above all else, the dialogues in which I’ve taken part just from applying colored dust onto filthy cement are phenomenal. And even if the art is walked over or when a beer is spilled or my fingers stepped on, the art feels worth it. It is not the final product, but the process, that adds something different to people’s days. It is not destination, but the journey.

Chelsea Ritter-Soronen

Written by

Chalk Riot // Muralist // Public Arts Organizer // Certified Wine Nerd // proudly wasting money on plane tickets and art supplies since 2004

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