“I draws what I like and I like what I drew!” sings Bert, the affable sidewalk artist in Disney’s Mary Poppins. He doesn’t know how easy he’s got it. If Bert lived in one of a dozen American cities, his colorful chalk drawings of boats and circus animals could very well land him in jail.
Take the recent example of Susan Mortensen, 29-year-old mom in Richmond, Virginia. In March, Mortensen was arrested for allowing her four-year-old daughter to draw on rocks at a local park with sidewalk chalk. This month a judge sentenced her to 50 hours of community service helping to strip and repaint 200 boundary posts on a bridge. Mortensen told a local TV station that her daughter is now “very nervous around cops” and “very scared of chalk.”
That’s not all. One week ago in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, police cited two teenagers for decorating a street with chalk renditions of a whale and a sea turtle. The kids must now appear in court and pay a fine to be determined by a district judge. James Donnelly, Doylestown’s police chief, told a local newspaper that the chalking was “an attempt at vandalism” that could lead to the use of more permanent materials.
Chalk. The gateway art supply.
These are not isolated incidents. Over the past five years, at least 48 people in 13 American cities have run afoul of authorities for coloring things with chalk. The vast majority were arrested in connection with drawing designs or messages on public streets or sidewalks. Those accused of chalk vandalism range from the “Chalking 8“—who were asking for trouble when they drew anti-cop slogans on the wall of the police station in Manchester, New Hampshire—to six-year-old Natalie Shea, who received a New York City graffiti warning that carries a possible $300 fine for marring her stoop in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood with a blue chalk scribble. (A spokesperson for Crayola, the leading maker of sidewalk chalk, did not return a phone call seeking comment.)
This map includes details of chalk-related arrests in the United States since 1991—all those we could track down, in any case. (New York, Los Angeles, and Denver have multiple entries, so you’ll need to zoom in to see everything.) The article continues below.
The recent chalk arrests might just be a warmup for a chalk-pocalypse at the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions, which in past years have been targeted by a wide range of chalk terrorists. At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, cops tackled and cuffed two teenage protesters who were chalking anti-abortion slogans on a sidewalk. And just before the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, Josh Kinberg, the founder of Bikes Against Bush, was hauled off to jail for riding a bike that automatically sprayed anti-Bush slogans with powdered street chalk.