Mr. Chalk unloads his sketchbook on State Street
A conversation with Madison’s newest masked street artist.
If you’ve ambled down State Street on a Saturday in the past few weeks, you might have noticed a strange phenomenon—a figure dressed in all white, replete with a long white button-up, tie, mask, and fedora. Crouched, he methodically chalks comics down a whole side of State Street. State Street is full of odd characters, to be sure, but Mr. Chalk, who refuses to give his real name, stands out for the humanity and intimacy of his comics. The stories he unfurls along the curb are a direct reflection of the busy street around him—he captures surprisingly deep bus-stop conversations between strangers, the indecision of shoppers, even the comments people make about him as they watch him work.
This past Saturday, I interviewed Mr. Chalk on one of these excursions, and we talked about his influences and genesis of this project, the interactivity of this kind of performance art, the story behind the mask, and his plans for the future. His work can be viewed on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter.
Tone Madison What inspired this project?
Mr. Chalk: Well, I got started by drawing in my classes a lot.
Tone Madison: So are you a UW-Madison student?
Mr. Chalk: Yeah, I’m just about to graduate and plan to keep working on this after. I’m going to be a Madison artist for a while, I think.
So I started diaries and journals about interesting things I saw and overheard while I was working and studying here. I have giant stacks of books with sketches and these little notes of things I saw and heard. And I was looking through them and I started collecting all the little observations together in one book—the white book. I thought they were really powerful, because people would tell me—especially when I was working—people would just tell me stories about their life that were unprompted. They’d just say these things and walk away, and I would never see them again. So I thought that was really interesting. And I’ve been wanting to do some chalk art for a while, so I thought it would be really cool to get those interesting things out of my sketchbook where nobody ever sees them, and bring them out into the space where I heard and saw all of these things.
Tone Madison: I notice you also incorporate some things that people say as they’re walking by.
Mr. Chalk: Occasionally, yeah, because it’s ongoing. During the week I’ll make a few more observations. I’ve got several years’ worth right now, so I’ve got more than enough to I think draw up and down State Street, which is my plan. But I keep adding to the books, so if I finish one section, I think I might make a second run. I’ve got a lot of stories to do, and as long as I’m living here I think I might keep doing this.
Tone Madison: There’s definitely a part of performance art to this—what with the mask, tie, hat, etc.
Mr. Chalk: I think the funny story is I think I made this mask specifically for a performance art class. I never felt passionate about it, and as I was sketching I actually liked drawing the character. So I thought maybe Mr Chalk could, instead of just being someone who does performance art pieces, maybe his name could be Mr. Chalk. And then once I had a name made, then it made a lot more sense of what I could do.
This is kind of a way of me doing something with performance art that doesn’t feel too eggheaded or too elitist. I think it’s performance art that I think is really connecting me with people around Madison.
Tone Madison: It must be kind of physically demanding.
Mr. Chalk: It is. I was inspired by William Pope.L’s “The Great White Way.” He crawled on his elbows and knees down New York streets in a Superman costume and a skateboard strapped to his back, and that always really impressed me, just the energy that it took. It took him years to get it done. But then I wanted to draw, so I guess I added the drawing dimension to the William Pope.L idea.
Tone Madison: Is there anything else that’s inspired you?
Mr. Chalk: I’ve started reading Lynda Barry’s work, and that’s really fascinating work.
There’s a really good community in the UW program where you can try these sorts of things and they’re not too judgmental, they’re willing to let you try. I’ve gotten really a really good response from my friends for this project. So I think it’s combining things that I’ve been wanting to do—I’ve been wanting to use drawing somehow. But in art university, nobody respects you just because you draw, you have to come up with some inventive way of using drawing. So I think I’m using drawing here in a way that taps into a different type of performance art and lets them both talk to each other a bit.
Tone Madison: What was your initial impetus to start chalking?
Mr. Chalk: I knew I liked State Street itself because I’ve lived here for a year and I’ve seen a lot of things on State Street. So when I started thinking of places I wanted to do a project, I got sick of doing things in the art building for just art students, because art students talk about art in a certain way—it’s all very philosophical in those kinds of conversations.
I really wanted to get out of the art sphere and into the real world with people who aren’t necessarily artists, and show them the kind of things I’ve been doing in my sketchbook for three years. So I really wanted just to do a project where I can engage and communicate with people outside, outside the clique of fellow artists.
Tone Madison: What’s the most powerful interaction with people on State Street interacting with your work?
Mr. Chalk: There was a large group of teenagers who wanted selfies, and they told me about all these social media outlets I should get on that I didn’t know existed. So, that was helpful. The hip people used to use twitter and now I guess the old people are using twitter, and I didn’t know. That was good information.
Okay, my favorite one—two young ladies thought I was a robot and they both drew me. One of them just wrote “Who are you?” and the other wrote “Who is this man?” I love their drawings of me because they’re so raw and you can tell it was the Iron Man mask in this very simple child’s drawing. And so “who are you?” is one of the big questions that people ask themselves at school, I just really found it fascinating that these kids automatically jumped to that question. I’m kinda out here to figure out a question like that, and it was amazing that they picked up on that without me saying anything in the comic itself.
Tone Madison: I guess an obvious question is why the mask and why the anonymity?
Mr. Chalk: It helps. I like the idea that these stories have a bit of mystery to them. If you saw my face or knew what I looked like, you might try to deduce where all these stories came from. I like there being an element of mystery where, it might be your story and it comes out here. It’s maybe one layer in between the real person from where I may have heard these things years ago and the final product.
Tone Madison: Okay, and is this is your third week of doing this?
Mr. Chalk: I had one week that I kinda count because it was an experimental week. I just wanted to see how long I could last, and I got about a block, and that’s how I figured out I could do about a block before it gets too demanding. So I did one trial run and then this is my third week of officially doing it on a regular basis but this is my fourth drawing session. I started the trial week at the corner of Walgreens, so it’s “officially’ my fourth week because this is my fourth week of starting there and working block by block down State Street.
Tone Madison: And are you planning on doing this all summer?
Mr. Chalk: Yes.
Tone Madison: What’s the deal with your other alter ego, Mr. Pen?
Mr. Chalk: Mr. Pen started at the same time, but Mr. Pen draws works that are a little more personal. The things Mr. Pen draws… feed into what I draw here a bit. This is a bit more fun side of it, where I’m talking to more people, and Mr. Pen is the side of it where I’m figuring out what kind of things I want to talk about next time…. But that might be kind of a separate project, because that would be a bit more personal than this one, which is very focused on people around Madison.