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