Street Art in George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia

Street Art in George Town, on Penang Island, Malaysia

My original visit to the island-state of Penang, Malaysia, was one of the most culturally rewarding experiences in all of my travels. The architecture in the UNESCO World Heritage capital city of George Town was simply stunning. Even more fascinating were the traditional artisans of George Town, who continue to make beaded shoes, Songkok hats, and sandalwood joss sticks by hand, in accordance with centuries-old methods.

Recently, I decided to return to Penang, as it is one of the easiest places in the world to apply for a Thai visa. I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the narrow alleys and street vendors of George Town, but I also felt a bit of trepidation. Six years is a long time. Would this intriguing corner of Malaysia live up to my previous experience? After attending to business at the Thai Consulate, I headed out to explore George Town on foot, just as I had done in 2010.

Within minutes, I noticed big changes. Huge murals adorned the sides of buildings, concrete bollocks had been painted as cartoon characters, and interactive art installations were scattered liberally throughout the city. Along with the city’s architecture and traditional crafts, the street art in George Town has become one of the most popular reasons for visiting Penang.

Huge mural on Penang Road, titled "Awaiting Trishaw Peddler"

Huge mural on Penang Road, “Awaiting Trishaw Peddler,” is one of the original six created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic

The transformation began in 2009, when the Penang State government put out bids for an art challenge titled, “Marking George Town.” The Kuala Lumpur firm that was awarded the commission created 52 wire rod caricatures that depicted historical events and cultural stories of George Town. The dioramas were affixed to the sides of buildings in prominent locations around the city.

With Phase One completed, city officials began planning the next step. Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, had painted a few murals around town in 2011. Initially, public response was not particularly positive. Many questioned the appropriateness of this newfangled art form in the historic city center. Fortunately, city fathers felt otherwise. They commissioned Zacharevic to create a series of six huge murals, including his “Awaiting Trishaw Peddler” and “Kungfu Girl.”

"Kungfu Girl," sometimes referred to as "Little Girl in Blue," a mural located on Muntri Avenue

“Kungfu Girl,” sometimes referred to as “Little Girl in Blue,” a mural located on Muntri Avenue, is also one of the original six murals painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic

Since then, street art in George Town has exploded. By the end of the second day, I had identified more than 30 examples, and I had just scratched the surface. There dozens more. The project has become so popular that it has spilled over into the rural areas of Penang, and murals are now beginning to pop up on the mainland.

"Big Mouth" mural opens its maw over an arcaded walkway on Muntri Avenue

“Big Mouth” mural opens its maw over an arcaded walkway on Muntri Avenue

"The Indian Boatman," street art in George Town, on Klang Avenue

Indian Boatman,” street art in George Town, on Klang Avenue

This mural on Love Lane covers the entire side of the Ping Seng Hotel

This mural on Love Lane covers the entire side of the Ping Seng Hotel

More street art on the walls of the Ping Seng Hotel on Love Lane in George Town

More street art on the walls of the Ping Seng Hotel on Love Lane in George Town

"Three Cultural Girls," on Lorong Soo Hong in George Town, Penang, depicts the three major races in Malaysia

“Three Cultural Girls,” on Lorong Soo Hong in George Town, Penang, depicts the three major races in Malaysia

Street Art in George Town, Penang, includes this mural, titled "Teach You Speak Hokkien"

Street Art in George Town, Penang, includes this mural, titled “Teach You Speak Hokkien”

Street art in George Town includes this fanciful piece titled "Lion Dance," on Armenian Street

Street art in George Town includes this fanciful piece titled “Lion Dance,” on Armenian Street

"Magic," located on Armenian Street

“Magic,” located on Armenian Street

Mural of a traditional rickshaw vendor in an alley off Armenian Street

Mural of a traditional rickshaw vendor in an alley off Armenian Street

This piece of unnamed street art in George Town blends in so well with its surroundings that it is difficult to find

This piece of unnamed street art in George Town blends in so well with its surroundings that it is difficult to find

"I Can Help Catch Rats" on Armenian Street

“I Can Help Catch Rats” on Armenian Street

"Cats and Humans Living Happily Together," located on Pantai Avenue

“Cats and Humans Living Happily Together,” located on Pantai Avenue

"Burning" also uses three-dimensional props. Originally, the caption said "Only you can stop air pollution," however that was removed after someone spray painted an epithet across it. Located on Ah Quee Street

“Burning” also uses three-dimensional props. Originally, the caption said “Only you can stop air pollution,” however that was removed after someone spray painted an epithet across it. Located on Ah Quee Street.

"Little Boy with Pet Dinosaur," located on Ah Quee Street

“Little Boy with Pet Dinosaur,” located on Ah Quee Street

Titled "Malaysian Man in a Flag Shirt." There seems to be a mystery surrounding the number 27 that is painted next to the figure, which is located on Ah Quee Street.

Titled “Malaysian Man in a Flag Shirt.” There seems to be a mystery surrounding the number 27 that is painted next to the figure, which is located on Ah Quee Street.

Someone got creative with a pipe protruding from a wall on Ah Quee Street. The result was this mural, titled "Pipe Elephant."

Someone got creative with a pipe protruding from a wall on Ah Quee Street. The result was this mural, titled “Pipe Elephant.”

"Feed the Stray," in back courtyard off Ah Quee Street

“Feed the Stray,” in back courtyard off Ah Quee Street

"Minion and Fire Hydrant" is found on Ah Quee Street

“Minion and Fire Hydrant” is found on Ah Quee Street

Cat in a window, located on Acheh Street

Cat in a window, located on Acheh Street

Most popular with the public are interactive pieces that allows visitors to insert themselves into the scenes. “Little Children on a Bicycle” uses an old bicycle frame to create a three-dimensional piece. While I watched, one person after another perched on the rear of the bike, while friends took photos. The exact same thing occurred at “Boy on a Bike,” where tourists sat astride the seat of a real motorcycle affixed to the wall. And an untitled piece in an alley off Armenian Street begged for real bodies to join the tug-of-war human chain.

"Little Children on a Bicycle" uses an actual old bicycle to create the three-dimensional piece. Located on Armenian Street.

“Little Children on a Bicycle” uses an actual old bicycle to create the three-dimensional piece. Located on Armenian Street.

Tourists in search of street art in George Town often perch on this real motorcycle to become part of the painting. Located on Ah Quee Street, it is titled "Boy on a Bike."

Tourists in search of street art in George Town often perch on this real motorcycle to become part of the painting. Located on Ah Quee Street, it is titled “Boy on a Bike.”

Visitors interact with this untitled street art in George Town, located in an alley off Armenian Street

Visitors interact with this untitled street art in George Town, located in an alley off Armenian Street

The proliferation of street art in George Town, some of which is more reminiscent of graffiti than art, is once again creating controversy. Some think the project has gone too far. For them, time, and Malaysia’s muggy tropical weather, may provide an easy solution. Many of the original pieces are already fading, and a few have disappeared completely. On the other hand, their disappearance provides fresh canvases for new art. Only time will tell if the street art in George Town is here to stay. As for me, I’m definitely a fan.

Planning a trip to Penang and want to know the location of all the street art on the island? Refer to this detailed map created by Time Out Penang:

If you’re considering a visit to George Town, on the island of Penang, Malaysia, my favorite site for finding the best prices is Booking.com. I earn a small sum if you book by clicking on this link to the hotels in George Town, which helps keep this blog free for you to read.

7 Comments on “Street Art in George Town, on Penang Island, Malaysia

  1. Is there any up coming mural art projects in penang that artist ? can work on behalf of UNESCO heritage in penang ?

    • Hi dineshvr: I’m sorry but I can’t help. I just wrote an article about the street art in Penang, but I don’t represent the city in any way.

  2. I really enjoyed this article. It’s so exciting to see street art from around the world. I was just in Paris and there too every corner you find a wonderful piece of art that makes you giggle, think or gasp.

    I bumped into you at an airport last year, we were both returning to the US from Thailand. I’m loving your blog πŸ™‚

    • Hi Evelyn: Wow! I am always amazed when I hear from people I met on the road who have been reading my blog ever since. Thank you so much for the compliment – you can’t imagine what it means to me. And like you, I find street art inspiring. Hope you are still traveling and enjoying life.

    • Thanks Martin and Sarah, glad you enjoyed it. I’m tying to incorporate more maps, so glad to know you thought it was a positive change.

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