Authored by Anitha Thanabalan (Contributor)
Everywhere that you turn in Penang, you will see some sort of metal sculpture or mural on the wall. The whole idea was to enhance the streets of Penang and add some flair.
The history of Penang is a very interesting one, the modern history of Penang only started in 1786 because Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company landed on Penang Island which is where Fort Cornwallis now stands. For Light, Penang was the ideal places because it was in the middle of the maritime trade routes between China and India so it was convenient place for trade and it was a great place for French and Dutch expansion in Southeast Asia.
The British influence is so high here that the street names in Penang have English names for example; the city itself is called Georgetown. There are streets here like Lorong Buckingham, Armenian Street, Leith Street, etc.
Because Penang has been around for so long, the buildings date back to the 1700s which means a lot of them are rundown, but people have tried to renovate and make them look stunning. Artists and muralists alike have tried to enhance Georgetown’s position as the street capital of the country.
Since 2008, Georgetown was inscribed as a World Heritage Site and because of that the street art has developed at a very rapid rate. In 2009, cartoonists such as Tang Mun Kian and Baba Chuah wanted to help bring awareness to the history of the street by adding the stories of street and social history through the use of caricatures so there are metal caricatures that have been set up all over the city for everyone to see.
The iron caricatures blend humour and historical facts that describe and colloquial demeanour of early settlement days that gave a memorable history to each of those streets. They depict the daily lives of the people where those landmarks start at this moment.
In 2012, London-trained Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was asked and commissioned to paint a collection of murals around the inner city and you can see them all over Georgetown. The project sparks interest with the locals and more and more local artists are starting to add murals to the walls of Georgetown.
Now, rather than walking around aimlessly, most hostels and hotels will have a brochure of all the street art so that you can go on a scavenger hunt around the town so that you can take photos of all of the murals and sculptures. Being interested in street art myself, I was excited to start my tour so with a coffee and my brochure in hand, I was ready for my adventure around Georgetown to see all the street art.
Breakdown of the Street Art in Penang
For people that don’t already know. Shoe designer Jimmy Choo is actually from Penang and because of this, this metal sculpture describes his start in shoe designing. This is located on corner of Lebuh Leith and Lebuh Muntri and is number one on the scavenger hunt.
Located on Lorong Stewart, it’s a famous walkway because it claims to be the a five-foot walkway, but clearly just from the picture you can see that it is the narrowest walkway in Penang and it is connects to the Wan Hai Hotel in Georgetown.
History states that back in the day, the rich husbands of Muntri Street used to come to Love Lane, which used to be a street filled with brothels, to sleep with their mistresses. So, it is clear that the artists truly embraced that idea with this metal sculpture of a husband climbing out a window.
Love Lane has now become a hub for backpackers and traveller because of the abundance of bars and hostels on the street. This metal sculpture depicts that perfectly but the history of this street has definitely changed in the past few years.
There are so many different ones around the city and you just need to look for them because some are hidden and some are in plain sight.
Another amazing thing to see around Georgetown are the murals that have been painted. Some are pretty faded and you can tell that they have been there for a very long time, but there are some that have made Penang what it is now and don’t seem to be going away any time soon.
Little Children on a Bicycle is a mural that was painted by Ernest Zacharevic on the wall of a shop house on Armenian street and it depicts a little girl taking her younger brother on a bicycle ride and the joy on their faces provide cheer and adds character to Armenian street. The cool thing about this mural is that he used three-dimensional objects to add some flair to the painting.
Old motorbike is another example about how Zacharevic uses three-dimensional objects to add something more to the painting. You can find this mural on Ah Quee Street. It depicts a boy that is waiting on his bike as he watches pedestrian traffic. Ah Quee street actually has another one of Zacharevic’s painting along with a 3D form of cigarettes sitting out of the wall.
There are some many murals and art installations around the city, all you have to do is just walk around and see them.