The Many Facets of Street Art in Georgetown, Penang


Before I took a flight from Singapore to Penang, I knew only 2 things about Penang: the food and the art. I know. I am such a cliched traveller sometimes.

Penang street food

The first draw of Penang is always itself street food. If you dont believe me, ask my gut about it.

 

The street food of Penang, infused with elements of Chinese, Peranakan, Malay, Indian, Thai and European cuisines, needs no introduction. If anything, I was confused with choices here. But the art scene in Penang is completely something else. I knew about the street art of Penang, but I was about to learn about it in much more detail here.



Further Reading: Looking for other offbeat adventures in Malaysia? Explore the Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur.



The Unesco World Heritage site of Georgetown


From the Penang Bayan Lepas International Airport, I took a cab to get to the heart of Georgetown – to the backpacker alley of Chulia street. But there was only one way for me to explore Georgetown.

On my two trusted feet.

 

In 2008, Georgetown – along with the very similar city of Malacca – was listed as a Unesco world heritage site. And there is no mistaking why. The city is a cauldron of cultures, and over the years, it has successfully taken in all of them, and created something unique.

Georgetown street photography penang

The historic and cultural streets of Georgetown

 

But over the years, thanks to the efforts of the Penang Island Municipal council, Penang – and Georgetown in particular – has earned another name. The ‘street art capital of the world’. Many flock to Penang to see the colourful – and often interactive and involving – street art around the streets of Georgetown.

 

And as far as my 3-day visit to Georgetown went, I can tell you that the art scene in Penang has a few different facets to it. And I went tracking each of them.



Ernest Zacharevic and his Interactive Art


Back in 2012, an unheard-of Lithuanian artist named Ernest Zacharevic was asked by the Municipal council to create some artwork around the city for the Georgetown Festival. Little did he know that he was laying the foundation for making Penang a tourist capital for street art.

 

Fun Fact: Ernest Zacharevic was also commissioned to create some artworks in the island nation of Singapore. If you are in Singapore, go on a hunt for about 6 of his murals, which are mostly in obscure and non-touristy streets.



Further Reading: If you enjoy street art as much as I do, you have to check out David Cerny’s works in Prague, and the mysterious graffiti artist known as Blu in Warsaw


Ernest went about his task, incorporating many of Penang’s cultural tidbits into his art. Not only did he make his works very artsy, but most of them were interactive, and some of them in 3D. Soon, Ernest Zacharevic’s works earned Penang a coveted vacation status among the nearby South East Asian nations. And eventually, the rest of the world.

interactive street art georgetown penang

This is not a work by Ernest Zacharevic. But this wall in Penang, perfectly pays homage to him.

little children bicycle mural georgetown penang

One of Zacharevic’s most famous works, which attract plenty of tourists to take selfies with it. Why would I refuse to join the crowd?

boy and motorbike graffiti penang

Ok, I tend to do a little too much of pulling around Zacharevic’s works.



Soon, there were Others like Ernest


Ernest Zacharevic was not the only one who decided to get creative with the walls in Georgetown. Contrary to popular belief, he has done only 6 murals in Georgetown. But he inspired others to get into the act as and soon, there was an army of artists who started painting the streets – some of them known, and some unknown. And somehow, despite the irregularity, all these artworks gelled together to create the massive street art venue that Penang has become.

louis gan street art penang

While this artwork is normally credited to Ernest Zacharevic, it was actually a work by Louis Gan, who wanted to showcase how his life was growing up in Penang.

louis gan street art penang malaysia

Believed to be another one of Louis Gan’s creations from his childhood memories.

chinese opera singer mural georgetown penang

There are also plenty of uncredited artworks around the city, highlighting local cultures. Like this Chinese opera singer, who is holding a parchment that says ‘our art is dying’



The 101 Lost Kittens Project


Ernest Zacharevic and similar interactive artists may have put Penang on the street art map of the world, but it would be wrong to assume that they are solely responsible for all the street art in the beautiful alleyways of Georgetown. Equal credit should also go to a group of artists who calls themselves ‘Artists for stray animals’ and their project called the 101 Lost Kittens project.

 

In the 2013 Georgetown art festival, these artists came together and decided to create awareness for the stray cats – which seem to make a sizeable group in Penang. They went around the town painting their versions of local cats on to the walls. And nowadays, these wall cats make an excellent addition to the already phenomenal artwork in Penang.

Skippy the cat and giant rat penang

Skippy the cat, and the giant rat, are 2 famous members of the Penang art scene.

bruce lee cat street art georgetown penang

This work is called ‘the real bruce lee would never do this’. Also, note the small cat at the bottom of the wall.

101 lost kitten project penang

I am not a 100% sure if this is part of the 101 lost kittens project. But looking at the subject, they are most likely to be.



 

Further Reading: One of my favourite street art cities would be Belgrade in Serbia, which has some pretty cool artwork by uncredited and unknown artists.


Marking Georgetown – a Wrought iron exhibit


Another essential part of the street art scene in Georgetown is the series of wrought iron exhibits that are found on all the major streets of Georgetown. The ‘Marking Georgetown’ art work is a series of 52 wrought iron caricatures which were done by a company called ‘Sculpture at work’ who were specially commissioned for this work.

 

The sculptors took their inspirations for the streets itself. Since most the streets of Georgetown are named after local cultural tidbits, they incorporated this into the specific caricature created for the street.

 

Among the caricatures, there is a tribute to the shoe designer Jimmy Choo, who started his apprenticeship here in Penang; to Tuak (the local drink which is called Toddy in Kerala) and to the local foods like Kelinga Mee, Nasi Kandar and Roti Benggali. There are also depictions of many of the local professions, like barbers, barbers, ironsmiths, firefighters, Indian astrologers and the handpulled rickshaw drivers. There is even a ode to the cultural legacy of Mahjong and Kopi O.


Further Reading: Kopi what?? Well, it took me some time to decode the kopi language of Malaysia and Singapore. So, I wrote a small guide about the different types of Kopi.


penang wrought iron art work georgetown, penang

The wrought iron street art in Georgetown, Penang.

steel art penang georgetown

Who knew that once upon a time, fireman and police cop were the same guy.

iron sculpture penang georgetown

There are plenty of tributes to some of the older professions in this part of the world. Here, a lady sells rock candy.

minions and iron sculpture penang malaysia

There has also been a generous cohabitation of art styles. Here, a wrought iron piece shares wall space with a mural of a minion.



Art on – and about – the wheels


It would be unfair if I ended this piece without mentioning the impact that wheels have on the local art. For decades, the hand-pulled rickshaw and the cycle-pulled trishaw have been an important part of Penang lifestyle, and even now, colourful trishaws are lined up near Jalan Penang and Jalan Muntri, waiting for their next ride. There is even a beautiful mural done on the street opposite to this place, which provides a quite tribute to this history.

 

One final tip. If you are taking a walk around Georgetown, do make it a point to look up from time to time. You may be surprised to see the sight of a hanging bicycle, but it does make a pretty little sight.

handpulled rickshaw penang

The colourful handpulled rickshaws of Penang.

trishaw street art georgetown penang

The giant mural of a waiting trishaw in penang

hanging bicycle penang malaysia

And what do you know? There are some hanging bicycles in unexpected parts of the city.

bicycle art penang georgetown

Another example of a hanging bicycle. I was told that the shopkeeper started selling his wares on a bicycle, and then built a shop as he moved up in life. So, he still remember his old bicycle.



Further Reading: Handing bicycles are cool and all that. But have you seen the hanging shoes of Ljubljana, Slovenia?



Practical Information


While I normally give practical information for every place I visit, I think Georgetown is the kind of place where that is not really recommended. All you have to do is just go out and walk around the city. But if you are one of those who don’t want to miss every single piece of street art, you can download the Penang street art map from here.

 

 


 

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types of street art penang

The many facets of street art in Penang. Pin it.



This post is part of my travel stories about Malaysia. Click here to check out other amazing travel stories from Malaysia. 



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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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