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, as well as the delights of Penang cuisine. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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: