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You’ve gotta chalk the walk (Nov. 1998)

Every day, the Yale campus is inundated with flyers, posters, table tents, and notices in the Yale Daily News advertising a staggering assortment of activities. In this sea of screaming paper, it can be difficult to get students to notice any event in particular: After a while, everything seems to congeal into one big Humanist Society-Yale Political Union Debate-Master’s Tea-String-Quartet Concert in WLH. So a number of organizations have turned to the only unadulterated surface area left on campus: the sidewalks.

Undergraduates can no longer keep their eyes to the ground to avoid the posters vying for their attention, since enthusiastic promoters now regularly cover the bluestone walks and plazas with advertisements written in sidewalk chalk. Unlike the stark, politically motivated “chalkings” that occasionally pop up around campus (and that have in recent memory declared such sentiments as “Columbus ate my Mother!”), these street-art chalkings emphasize color and an anything-goes sort of sensibility perfect for a campus suffering from information overload. Recent efforts, for example, have included a naked woman reclining on her side and a version of “American Gothic,” both advertising improv comedy shows.

The most popular chalking spots are in front of Sterling Memorial Library and on the Old Campus in front of Lanman-Wright Hall. I like to think of the former location, a large, multi-tiered bluestone patio created when High Street was closed, as the chalker’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This is usually the site of the more ambitious chalkings—not necessarily the most artistic, but definitely the largest. On any given day, a number of student groups can be seen staking out space— like real estate, effective chalkings are all about location—in either of these two areas.

Whatever childish associations chalk may have, chalkings at Yale definitely are not child’s play. Nick Frankfurt ’99, an accomplished campus chalker, history major, and member of the improv comedy group the Viola Question, has also studied painting and drawing at Yale. His drawings have appeared in Natural History and on the cover of Yale Scientific. Frankfurt says that the best chalkings involve pictures along with text and become a kind of entertainment in their own right. He learned the ins and outs of chalking from an older Viola Question member and hopes to pass down the skill—and the group’s red toolbox full of chalk—to an underclassman. While he takes pride in his work, he has no illusion about the role of his craft.

“Basically,” Frankfurt says, “it’s just a publicity stunt.”

Filed under 1990s
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