In the cities in Europe, Japan, Australia, as well as a few large cities in the United States,
tourists and visitors may see a patch of sidewalk or street decorated with chalks. Street painting and pavement artists have a long tradition in Europe, probably starting in Italy in the 16th century. The painters were called "madonnari" or "Madonna painters". This referred to the reproduction of icons of the Madonna, in chalks, for traditional religious and folk festivals. These traveling artists lived from the coins thrown on the drawing in homage to the image and the artist's skill. Although the subject matter of today’s artists goes beyond the Madonna theme, the name, madonnari, is still used. Towns and cities in Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and other countries, depending on local ordinances, generally host madonnari.
In the past, street painters were folk artists reproducing simple images with river rocks or chalks. These artists were reduced in number during the fascist and World War II hardships. In recent years, young artists and art students have started a revival. The techniques have changed from blackboard chalks to handmade pastels, and from three or four hour images to complicated murals. Today, illusionary images using anamorphic perspective are gaining popularity.
Many of the "nuovi madonnari,” or new street painters, have turned to hand-made pastels, which are wind resistant and somewhat water repellent. Plus, the artist can control the color pallet. However, other artists continue to use inexpensive commercial pastels with amazing results, some use a combination of both.
The first Italian Street Painting Festival began in 1973 in the village of Grazie di Curtatone, Italy (south of Verona) as a celebration of the Feast of the Assumption. The festival was designed to enhance a more traditional celebration that was part of the local culture for almost 700 years. Today hundreds of artists, from all over Italy and other countries, gather for the 24-hour competition. The street painters begin their images on August 14th and work through the night, under the lit piazza of Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie, Mantova, to complete their paintings by 6:00 PM on the Feast of the Assumption.
In 1987 Children’s Creative Project was the first to establish this romantic art form in the Western Hemisphere through a sister festival held at Mission Santa Barbara. Youth in Arts brought the northern California version to Mission San Rafael Arcangel in 1994. With the success and popularity of these two events, dozens more followed in the United States. At present, the United States seems to be the leader of the “nuovo madonnari” movement worldwide. Event directors and promoters from the United States have introduced the art form to other nations, most recently, Japan, Mexico, and China.