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Chantal Tseng is looking at pictures of cartoon lions on her phone. She wants to draw a comic feline on the chalkboard that hangs at the front of the sherry- and ham-obsessed Mockingbird Hill in Shaw, which she runs with her husband, Derek Brown. But she’s not quite sure how to sketch a convincing big cat.
“I’m more of a looking and copying type of artist,” she says. “It would take me a really long time to come up with a good-looking lion by myself.”
The chalk character will be used to promote a sherry flight Tseng dubbed “the March lion,” taking inspiration from the old proverb that the month “comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb.”
“The images I draw are often silly riffs,” Tseng says. “It’s whatever strikes my fancy that day.” The board changes once or twice a week and has included artworks inspired by Lou Reed, The Hunger Games, and Winnie the Pooh. Her pieces—and those by her colleague, Tim Burt, who shares drawing duties—are cute and clever. You’ll find many of them posted to her Instagram account (@shinobipaws), the bar’s Facebook page, and on the social media feeds of many customers.
These sketches aren’t just eye candy. For all their homespun charm and humor, Tseng’s doodles of Piglet, mockingjays, and cartoon lions are intended to drive sales, just like Tony the Tiger, Joe Camel, and the Kool-Aid Man before them. “They’re triggers for guests, as conversation starters and for ordering,” she says, “and they’re a way for us to highlight some things that we haven’t moved enough of in a while.”
Chalkboards like this one are one of those rare examples of art and commerce living together in relative harmony. Around the D.C. area, restaurants and bars—from casual neighborhood spots like the Fainting Goat to José Andrés’ gastro-lab Minibar—are using them to decorate their spaces, shape their brands, showcase specials, and sell, sell, sell.
“This recent hand-drawn craft movement is a part of the craft beer movement,” says Constance Stuven, who started doing chalkboard art for Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown about six years ago and now does chalk work for Open City and Tryst, where she’s also a manager. “You’re always putting on new drafts, and you need to advertise that.”
Bayou Bakery’s chef-owner David Guas appreciates the art form’s deeper roots. “This is where you saw chalkboard art start: coffee shops, mom and pops, small neighborhood joints,” Guas says, as he gestures at the boards that grace the walls above and behind the counters of his Arlington eatery. “Generally, there was someone on staff who was creative and could do it.”
Guas relies on Nikole Grad, who does most of the chalk art at the corner café—and occasionally at Paisley Fig and DC Reynolds—as a part-time spinoff of her career as a design director for D.C.-based interactive and web design firm NAV. On the day I stop by, she’s sitting at a counter drawing an ad for the newly debuted Vegalotta sandwich on a small board that will be placed near the front door. To inspire her, Guas makes one and walks her through the dish.
“It’s rapini with garlic-infused olive oil, grated provolone, and chili flakes folded in,” Guas says as he points out the components. “There’s sundried tomato pesto spread on the rustic sesame bun and Fontina cheese as the top layer.”
As Grad begins to sketch out the sandwich, she tries to leave plenty of space for a written description. “Being able to read the sign and understand the item is what I’m going for first and foremost,” she says. “The beauty really comes when form, function, and design come together.”
Like all the artists I talked to, Grad uses chalk ink pens. These markers create chalky-looking paint lines that don’t smudge as easily as regular chalk, though everyone simply calls them chalk. “One of the nice things about chalk is that it’s so democratic,” says local artist and designer Torie Partridge of Cherry Blossom Creative, who has done murals for Sona Creamery and Wine Bar, Righteous Cheese, and Union Market. “You’re basically buying a box of Crayolas, like a kid.”
Artists use wet rags and Q-tips to clean up when they accidentally color outside the lines or make a mistake. And therein lies one of the medium’s greatest strengths. “Chalk’s something you can play and experiment with so easily,” says Partridge. “You can mess up. So what? It’s not like an oil painting. You can just clean it up and try again.”
Though many daily-special chalkboards are dashed off with minimal planning or oversight, larger installations are a lengthy, time-consuming endeavor. Partridge reviews the space before she even begins brainstorming about a piece with a client. “There’s so much you can learn from seeing how artwork is going to fit in a physical space,” she says. “Then we do rounds of sketches and revise, revise, revise until we get it absolutely right on paper. I don’t like to surprise clients.”
Artists can earn not insignificant sums for these chalky masterpieces. Bayou Bakery’s Guas says he’s paid Grad anywhere from $75 to $300 per piece, depending on the time required and the complexity of the project. Sometimes it only takes a couple of hours; sometimes she has to come in for long, late-night sessions. Lauren Friedman, who draws the boards for Blind Dog Café and Bistro Bohem, estimates that she earns $60 to $75 per hour, and it usually takes her no more than a few hours to complete a single board. But like most restaurant artists, this kind of work isn’t a full-time career for her; she’s also written and illustrated a book (50 Ways to Wear a Scarf) and done illustrations for Lucky magazine. “I have a lot of side hustles,” she says. “Chalk art is one facet of what I do.”
Given the significant, ongoing investment chalk art requires, do the drawings pay off for bars and restaurants that commission them? Though he thinks the artwork makes his place look nicer, Guas isn’t sure how much it helps his bottom line. “Did I see a big spike in business when that big piece ran in the paper?” he asks rhetorically. “Maybe. You have to believe that every little bit helps, but to quantify it is impossible.”
Genevieve O’Sullivan, co-founder of Sona Creamery and Wine Bar on Capitol Hill, can directly attribute sales to the cheese-centric eatery’s District of Cheese chalk mural by Partridge. Approximately 10 feet high by 15 feet wide, the sprawling, sometimes silly scene features people playfully interacting with cheeses against a backdrop of notable D.C. landmarks. In this midst of the whimsical wonderland, rotating specials are listed in four spotlight circles. “People definitely order the bacon jam because they see it on the mural,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s in the center circle, so it jumps out.”
The chalk mural at Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw was originally intended to be a similarly styled space, where beer and cheese specials would be listed. That didn’t go exactly as planned. Husband and wife co-owners Thor and Leah Dedmon Cheston consulted on their vision for the piece with chalk artist Patrick Owens, and the trio let their imaginations run wild. Very wild. The finished wall-consuming piece, which measures about 20 feet wide and eight feet high, is an apocalyptic scene of D.C. wildlife gone haywire: A squirrel wields a flamethrower, a fox shoots lasers out of its eyes, giant pandas wrestle, and there’s a fire-breathing possum. “There may have been a little beer involved during the brainstorming sessions,” admits Thor Cheston.
In the end, it took Owens more than 100 hours to finish and cost the owners more than $2,000 for Owens’ time. “The quality of the art is so high, I thought that including the sales pitch in there would cheapen it,” says Cheston.
Instead, the couple relies on a trio of small chalkboards, which they and their staff maintain. They’re fine with this turn of events, since the mural has become a key decoration in their brewpub and a social media darling. “There’s usually a line of people waiting to take pictures of it,” says Cheston. “It’s all over Facebook and Twitter constantly.”
“That’s my opus,” says Owens, while he’s doing some touch-up work on a massive mural inspired by the Chicago skyline and sponsored by Goose Island Beer, which takes up one wall of Capitol Hill’s Union Pub. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
A former bartender at Jaleo, American Ice Company, Tabard Inn, and elsewhere, the self-taught sketcher is now a full-time chalkboard artist. Owens estimates that his work has appeared in more than 50 establishments across the city—from Pizzeria Paradiso to Smith Commons to Minibar. The artworks vary widely, depending on the establishment and his client’s direction. “Nine times out of 10, they say, ‘We just want something cool,’” he says. “That’s flattering, because they’re trusting me. Then I’ll gauge the space and see what style would work.”
Perhaps the hardest part of his job is seeing his works get smudged or smeared by uncaring patrons. “In the beginning, it was frustrating,” he says, pausing from filling in the goose’s beak to survey his progress on the mural. “I’d wonder, ‘Why would somebody want to do that?’ But now I’ve come to peace with it. You have to let go. You’re working in a temporary medium.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, this story initially stated that Patrick Owens’ work appeared in Sweetgreen. Actually, it appeared in Something Sweet.
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Photos by Nevin Martell