Penang, historically known as the Pearl of the Orient, had started trading with China sometime in the 15th century, well before the European powers arrived on the scene. To counter the Dutch influence in the East Indies, the British East India Company’s Captain Francis Light landed on Penang Island in 1786. He established George Town, built significantly on Indian convict labour, in Penang’s north east corner. A free port was founded, and coupled with the tin mining industry on the mainland, the fortunes of Penang really took off. Apart from the 1867 Penang riots (after which the island became a British crown colony), it has been home to a harmonious mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans. Just like the rest of the Malayan Straits, Penang suffered during the world wars, eventually becoming independent, as part of Malaysia. Today, while the port and mining relevance has declined, economic opportunities still abound on the strength of electronics manufacturing and tourism. Unsurprisingly, George Town was accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008.
The point being that owing to its history and the influence of its various communities, George Town today stands on the cusp of tradition and modernity. Apart from the mouth watering cuisine, unparalleled architectural heritage and languid pace of life, the gorgeous murals have positioned George Town as a destination for street art in its own right. Here are my top five reasons to visit (and appreciate) the amazing murals of George Town.
1) They are really that good!
Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned in 2012 by the Penang Municipal Council to create an art project for the George Town Festival. Art installations were already being promoted, but the nine murals by this Lithuanian artist enabled George Town literally explode on to the international art scene. Since then, more artists, both local and international, have created visually emotive pieces.
Take for example the Calvin and Hobbes-ish “Little Boy walking his Pet Dinosaur” (5°24’55.3″N 100°20’19.7″E). This rendition of a smiling boy restraining a pencil scrawled dinosaur can be found on a wall at the Ah Quee Street of George Town. I found the boy’s expression absolutely spot-on and the choice to go with a dinosaur as a figment of a child’s imagination is a stroke of Zacharevic’s genius.
Less than a meter away from the “Little Boy”, the “Boy on a Bike” graces the same wall and is also by Zacharevic. It shows a boy in a helmet sitting on a motorcycle as he looks over his shoulder, probably at the “Little Boy”. These two murals together are the biggest crowd pullers.
2) There are a lot of them that appeal to the general public
George Town’s inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage listing means that while the creativity of artists is supported, the concept behind artworks have to fit an approved tone, prior to implementation. As a consequence, the murals predominantly capture a joie de vivre and a refreshing simplicity, without being mundane or grotesque. So no dark tones, no political statements, no inciting slogans here. With the amount of skilfully done public art (murals, wrought iron installations, etc) that is crammed in George Town, it would be shocking NOT running into a charming mural. Some would even say that wandering around George Town is almost like walking in a free, open air museum.
While it is possible to get detailed information on mural walks from hotel front desks and Google Maps, I would strongly recommend taking detours and getting distracted by interesting looking alleys. For instance, take this gem, literally around the corner from the two previously mentioned Zacharevic murals. It can escape the limelight and I knew of it, only after being pointed to it by a local. Referred to as “The Real Bruce Lee Would Never Do This”, this very competently done mural focuses attention on stray animals. It is not an attempt to imply that the martial arts legend engaged in delivering flying kicks to homeless felines, but rather a reminder to the public to have compassion for strays. It is a pity though that the mural is gradually being invaded by peeling plaster and chipped off bricks.
3) They are a source of insight into typical Penang life
The inner city of George Town contains a lot of shophouses that are conserved today. Gentrification has yet to make inroads among its heritage buildings. So, to a certain extent, George Town is frozen in time. While the densely packed mural spots are often helpfully marked on maps and internet resources, embarking on a mural walk inevitably also means that one will really get to soak in the soul of Penang.
While they obviously mirror the life and times, the compelling murals can be used as icebreakers to interact with the locals. A solo walk through the picturesque streets can turn into an engaging conversation with locals, over a kopi or a Tiger.
Some locations for the paintings are chosen for a specific tie to that area. For instance, the “Indian Boatman”, by the remarkably talented Russian artist Julia Volchkova, can be seen at the crossing of Lorong (Lane) Stewart and Lebuh (Street) Klang and is a nod to the lodgings for boatmen of the Lee Clan Jetty in the past decades.
“I Want Pau!” is the creation of Kuala Lumpur born, Penang resident artist WK Setor. It is painted on the wall of a pastry shop on Lebuh Armenian Ghaut. It depicts two children stretching their hands from inside a barred window towards a parked bicycle, loaded with presumably buns.
And “Siblings on A Swing” is the creation of, in my opinion, probably one of the most promising self taught artists of Penang, Louis Gan. I have seen another one of his competent pieces, but this mural on Step by Step Lane remains my favourite. It is quite common to see people queue up to get their chance to have a photo taken, while seated on the partially embedded swing, next to the two kids.
4) They are not solely about art
These artworks have become the face of not only George Town, but entire Penang. One of these murals is the profile picture of Penang Tourism’s Instagram account. A lot of local businesses depend on it now. Why step inside a souvenir shop and be accosted by the mural renditions, when one can look at the real thing? Furthermore, I liked the fact there are these very real objects embedded into the murals. They make the experience a bit more tangible, a whole lot more memorable and encourage visitors to interact with the artwork.
“Little Children on a Bicycle” shows two children riding an actual bicycle, squealing in delight. Looking at the realism on their faces, it is impossible not to be affected by them. This is, hands down, the most photographed mural of George Town.
5) They may not be around for much longer
Although there is a plethora of excellent street art and all within walking distance too, just like elsewhere, they are subject to weathering over time and occasional vandalism. Secondly, some of the murals are located close to residential blocks and the increased public footfall, in addition to the sometimes inconsiderate chatter that it accompanies, has resulted in some very irate locals. The Chew Clan Jetty, erstwhile home to Zacharevic’s ‘Children in a Boat’, is one such casualty. Owing to its close proximity to the seaside and exposure to the elements, it has already disappeared and the residents were not too heartbroken at its departure. I am not aware that there are plans to revitalize other similarly deteriorating murals before they disappear completely, so I am pleased that I could visit the ones I did.
And if you are still not convinced, let me leave you with one last mural that I chanced upon, without any prior planning or Google help; just plain serendipity. At the junction of Jalan Burma and Jalan Nagor (5°25’14.2″N 100°19’32.6″E), this retro looking lady can be seen enjoying a perennial cigarette while seated on a stool, just outside a shophouse-turned-hip cafe.
Loculars thanks Ayush Basu for authoring this post. Ayush is based out of Singapore and documents his travels passionately through his lens, with the intent of uncovering the unexpected and relatively unseen. You can browse through his musings here and his photoblog here.