George Town Street Art – 52 iron rod sculptures and numerous colorful murals.
That is how many street art was present in George Town, Penang when I was there last August 2015. It was certainly one of the reasons why I added Penang in my Southeast Asia backpacking trip.
Located in the North East of Penang, George Town (along with Melaka) was awarded the title of World Heritage Site last 2008 by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. It used to be a British trading post and settlement, was named after Britain’s King George III. Nowadays, George Town is a cultural melting pot reflecting Malay and British influences.
History of Street Art in George Town
The popularity of street art in George Town isn’t that old. In fact, it only started a year after George Town was declared a World Heritage Site. Penang State Government initiated the Marking George Town: A Design Idea Competition to physically brand George Town with its recent award on 07 September 2009. The competition aimed to explore innovative ideas in art and design for public spaces, to provide a tangible and distinct identity.
The wrought-iron caricatures by Sculpture at work (Voices from the People) with anecdotal descriptions of the street they adorn, won out of the 40 entries from within the country and abroad. These were installed within the city’s building walls depicting unique and humorous illustrations of the streets’ unique stories.
During George Town Festival 2012, a Lithuanian artist named Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint a few murals for ‘Mirrors George Town’. This aimed to celebrate the diversity and multi-culturalism of George Town’s inhabitants. According to Zacharevic, these murals are his “first constructive public art project, 6 walls over 3 months in a town with no public art or graffiti whatsoever”.
These murals shot to fame and was the start of George Town being internationally known as street art haven in Malaysia. More street art festivals soon followed (like Urban Xchange) resulting to now countless murals around Penang.
I have tried searching for the latest exact number of murals in George Town but couldn’t find it.
George Town Street Art
Armed with my maps from the Tourism Information Counter in Penang Airport, I’ve set off to explore on foot around the historical core. The Hop On Free Central Area Transit (CAT) bus also helped a lot in exploring George Town.
Out of the 52, I managed to spot 14 of the iron caricatures by Sculpture at Work. It was fun reading the dialogs and inscriptions. But I’m sure it would have been better if there was a local with me who would be gracious enough to tell the histories of each street.
Here are the murals I’ve managed to track down and stumble into by accident while walking the streets of George Town.
My newfound friends at Couchsurfing Penang also were a big help and took us to see the street art at Nagore Mews. The rehabilitated mews is reputedly one of the oldest Chinese row heritage houses. It has been recently converted into a nightlife spot with the wall murals done by Urban Xchange International Street Art Festival.
I was very fortunate to hang out with the Couchsurfing Penang group for their weekly meetup that night. The locals even took us upstairs to the empty living quarters and made us play a sort of a horror game. Not so fun for me who’s afraid of the dark and small spaces! Hahaha. Each room was only more or less 2 square meters so imagine how an entire family lived there!
The 101 Lost Kittens Project was born in 2013 by Thailand artist Natthapon Muangkliang, Malaysian artist Louise Low, and Tang Yeok Khang. Its aim is to raise awareness towards stray animals. Cat lovers would surely love these works of art!
George Town Street Art Refresh
Despite having said that he won’t restore the murals, Ernest Zacharevic came back early of 2016 to refresh the murals. Thus giving new life to his works in the last 4 years.
See what they look like now: Ernest Zacharevic’s Facebook Page.
When I was in George Town last August 2015, the mural “Little Children on a Bicycle” was vandalized with “#4.0” in bright yellow paint. The “Boy on Old Motorcycle” was also recently vandalized one week ago with a small dick on his forehead and lines on his face. Both of which Ernest fixed a few days after. It was sad to see these works of art vandalized just because of whatever purpose or idea the perpetrator wants to prove.
These murals, often larger than life, certainly made the walls and streets of George Town more lively and vibrant. Indeed, it has boosted tourism, with street art aficionados adding Penang to their itinerary. And the authorities have certainly done a good job of keeping everything in check. Ensuring that the heritage of George Town is not lost and that the city is not overrun by unauthorized street art. As they say, too much of something is not good.
What has enticed me about street art is its ephemeral beauty. It fades with time and the elements and could give way to something new. Yet, it could also be repainted should the artist chooses, like what Ernest Zacharevic did with some of his works. Giving new life once again to these acclaimed works of art.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to see every piece of art and that was okay with me. I took it one day at a time and let my feet wander the streets of George Town and let myself get lost. And those times that I got lost are the times that I got to see and experience more. Immersing myself in the multi-cultural diversity and the unique heritage of Penang.
Quick Guide to George Town, Penang, Malaysia
How to get to George Town, Penang, Malaysia:
Plane: There are numerous flight carriers flying to Penang – AirAsia, Malaysia Air, Firefly, Dragonair, Jetstar, Silk Air, Cathay Pacific, Thai Smile.
Train: You can take the ETS (Electric Train Service) from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth, Penang (duration: 4 hours). Ticket costs 59 MYR (2015) and you can book online via ktmb.com.my or 12go.asia.
From Singapore or Johor Bahru, you have to change trains at Gemas if you want to take the train to Butterworth. You can also take the train from Bangkok to Butterworth, which stops at Padang Besar border.
For more info: Check out Seat61‘s updates.
Bus: You can take your pick from standard to VIP buses, ranging usually from 28 MYR to 45 MYR. Bus ride is usually around 5 hours or more depending on traffic.
How to get around George Town:
By bus: Like KL, Penang has an organized bus system. Terminals are at jetty and Komtar. There are buses available at the airport that can take you to George Town.
Rapid Penang also has a free CAT (Central Area Transit) bus that goes around 19 strategic locations. Perfect for exploring Penang for free.
NOTE: Don’t forget to get free maps at the airport.
By bike: This is common among tourists and bike rental shops are easy to find. You can also opt to rent motorbikes.
By trishaw: Looks very touristy but worth experiencing even once. Similar to pedicabs of the Philippines, these colorful rides can sometimes be more expensive than taxi.
By taxi: Metered cabs are aplenty but you can also opt to use Uber, Grab, or Tripda.
Do you like street art? Which is your favorite city with street art?
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