Lonely Planet Writer

See the spectacular, fleeting street paintings of Santa Barbara before they disappear

This month, the Californian coastal city of Santa Barbara will host its annual I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival, where 200 local street painters will transform sections of pavement into vivid, ephemeral works of art.

Artists taking part in the I Madonnari art festival in santa Barbara in 2008.
Santa Barbara’s I Madonnari art festival in 2008.

The city will welcome 200 local artists to the front of its iconic Old Mission, each working with chalk pastels to create artwork in a designated area while onlookers watch them come to life. In sizes that range from 4-by-6 feet to 12-by-12 feet, artists create reproductions of famous artworks, as well as original pieces. Past years have included a rendition of Edgar Degas’ “Dancer Tilting” by William Burgess and the large scale “Endangered Species of the World” — a collaboration by six artists measuring 24×30 feet to celebrate the festival’s 30th anniversary.

I Madonnari was founded in 1987 by Kathy Koury, the Executive Director of the Children’s Creative Project, as a fundraising event for the nonprofit arts education program. After seeing a street painting competition on a trip to Italy, Koury was inspired to bring the festival back to Santa Barbara. The practice is said to date back to the 16th century there, when artists would create images of the Madonna during religious festivals. Santa Barbara was the first city in the country to host a street painting festival, and now more than 100 cities in North America have similar events.

“The spectacular setting of the historic Santa Barbara Mission is the perfect place for our street painting festival as it supports the tradition of this art form and how it started in front of the Catholic Church during their religious festivals,” Koury told Lonely Planet. The Old Mission was founded in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans, and remains an active parish and one of the city’s top sights, with a beautiful structure resting on 12 acres of landscaped gardens.

The I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival will run over Memorial Day Weekend from 27-29 May. See the impressive works before they disappear.