George Town in Penang has literally hundreds of wall murals and other forms of street art scattered across the city. The street art movement in Penang started in 2012. Before 2012 there hardly any graffiti on the walls of George Town, let alone street art, and only 6 years later urban art is now as much of a feature of George Town, and as much of a tourist attraction, as the historic buildings. Street art has also caught on elsewhere in Malaysia as consequence with murals now adorning the walls of Ipoh’s Old Town and Kuala Lumpur.
Ernest Zacharevic Murals
Street art in Penang began when the Penang Tourist Board commissioned then unknown artist Ernest Zacharevic to create murals on 6 walls in places of historical importance in George Town for the George Town Festival. Ukranian born Zacharevic’s career started with this lucky break and he gone to create street art projects in urban settings around the world as well as art in galleries and other indoor spaces.
Ernest Zacharevic’s style and motivation is distinctive. He is not a Lithuanian version of British street artist Banksy. Banksy’s work tends to have an overtly political message and Zacharevic’s isn’t, and if it had been it is difficult to imagine him having been commissioned to create wall murals in a country such as Malaysia, known for its socially conservative values. Instead, Zacharevic’s work is focused on art as a feature and a reflection of the local community. The subjects of his work are the people from the locale where he is painting and he uses existing features of the landscape, and draws on the history of the area, to create his work. He does this literally and metaphorically. Many of his murals in depict people climbing into windows, or reaching for things, which were already part of the buildings upon which he is painting. One of his more famous works, which has now faded, was painted onto the side of one of the wooden houses in Chew Jetty and shows two boys in a wooden rowing boat.
Murals by Other Artists
Ernest Zacharevic’s work has gone onto to inspire lots of other local artists to create their own street art. Some of the work is similar to Ernest Zacharevic’s original mural, such as ‘I Want Pau!’ by Malaysian artist W K Setor.
Other artwork is of a very different style. ‘Teach you Speak Hokkien’ is more similar to conventional graffiti in the use of spray paints and a lower level of artistic detail. However, the theme of producing artwork which relates to the local community is still common to the more successful art works which have been produced in Penang.
Some of the art work is very large, like ‘Kung Fu Girl’ on Armenian Street which is over 20 feet in height. Others like the charming three young ladies on Soo Hong Lane are more modest, as was the artist whose identity is something of a mystery. This small mural is very clever as it shows girls from the three main races in Malaysia (Malay, Chinese and Indian) all dressed in traditional Hokkien Chinese outfits sharing and embracing the cultural heritage of Penang irrespective of their own ethnic background.
Animals feature heavily in the more recent artwork as well. On Chulia Street there is a large and very colourful mural of a tiger tugging at a piece of string attracted to a nail in the wall.
There are even more cats painted on the walls around George Town. A series of 12 murals was installed by cat welfare charity 101 Stray Kittens, and features 100 stray cats and 1 rat. The other well known, but unattributed, cat painting in the city is of a large ginger cat poking its head out of a window painted on the corner of an alleyway leading onto Cannon Street.
The variety of different type of painting and concepts is impressive. Every spare piece of wall in the city seems to be taken up with art. A good example of this is ‘Big Mouth’ by Gabriel Pitcher which makes excellent use of an awkward space above and to the sides of an archway.
An important feature of street art in Penang is that is it temporary. The climate in Malaysia, damp and hot, is unforgiving to painted surfaces with the colour pigmentation in the paint quickly breaking down. The ballerina mural on Love Lane is a wonderful example of this with the freshly painted ballerina’s form contrasting nearly with the black surface of the formerly white rendered wall of the building which served as the artist’s canvas.
The quick fading of the artwork is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is preserving the better known murals. Ernest Zacharevic has already had to return once to Penang to touch up some of this 2012 work. The positive side of this is, however, that the city’s art scene is constantly evolving with new people and new ideas having the chance to make it onto the city’s walls thereby providing new points of interest for returning visitors.
Tourist Board Signs
Penang’s Tourist Board has joined in with the street art movement it initiated by commissioning 52 cast iron signs telling the history of different parts of George Town with amusing cartoon style graphics.
The sign at the entrance to Muntri Street shows a young Jimmy Choo, who first studied shoe making at shop on Muntri Street in George Town, with his parents and a giant lady’s shoe.
The sign on Soo Hong Lane, which is the narrowest street in the city, shows a hand pulled rickshaw driver become separated from his customers because the cab is too wide to travel down the lane. A similar interesting fact and amusing illustration can be found on all 52 signs and they are well worth looking at as you walk around George Town.