I was pondering whether to make a flying visit to Penang or not, but as soon as I read that the city is a street art hub, I knew I had to go. My fascination with street art began the first time I lived in Nepal, in 2013. A big project, Kolor Kathmandu, had just been completed, and the colourful murals by Nepali and international artists could be seen scattered around town. Urban Kathmandu is certainly not pretty, so the street art is a great way of making public spaces a bit more attractive. Penang, on the other hand, is a gorgeous city. The street art there has a different history and purpose. That’s what I find so fascinating about the art form. It’s as diverse in its aesthetic and purpose as any art you can find in galleries.
My guidebook told me that I could get a map of the Penang street art from a tourist information centre. I saw a lot of people walking around with these maps. But I decided I didn’t want to follow a map. One of the attractions of street art for me is coming across it unexpectedly. Taking a taxi somewhere I might see a mural, and mentally note down to go back later on and photograph it. Or taking a short-cut down a side-street might lead to something beautiful. I spent most of the week I was in Penang wandering fairly aimlessly anyway, because it’s such an attractive town. So the photographs below are of the artworks that I happened to find. I didn’t seek any out deliberately.
I did, however, buy a signed copy of a beautiful new book called Street Art Penang Style by Mike Gibby, for reference later. It had only just been released. It supposedly contains photographs of all street art in Penang, but I photographed a lot of art that doesn’t feature in the book. It’s already slightly outdated although it’s just been published, but that’s the nature of street art: it’s ephemeral. Some will disintegrate, be painted over, be blocked by advertisements or vehicles. More will spring up. But all the more reason for a book like this to exist, to record the art as it was in 2015-16. And all the more reason not to follow any kind of map or guide when searching for street art. You never know what you’ll find. (But if you do want to follow a guide, the blog Passport Chop is a good place to begin).
The first two murals below are by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who came to Penang in 2011 and got involved in the street art scene from there. He has been credited with reviving and bringing vibrancy to the George Town street art scene with his much-loved works.
Zacharevic’s popular style spawned many imitations, such as this.
While Zacharevic’s artworks are possibly the most famous, many others, large and small, have their own distinct styles.
Gibby’s book also records Penang’s public sculptures, most of which I didn’t see. But the photo below is of the Macalister Bust, in the grounds of the Macalister Mansion, where I was hosted for a lovely high tea one afternoon. I don’t know if I would call this public art per se, as it’s within the grounds of a private property. But the Macalister Mansion has several different eateries, such as the Living Room cafe, as well as a bar, so the public can access it.
This is what Gibby writes about the Macalister Bust (2013):
This large ‘cubist-influenced ‘ bust in the gardens of Macalister Mansion, a boutique hotel on Macalister Road, honours Norman Macalister, acting Governor of Penang between 1807-1810. Simple and bold in execution, and referencing as it does an earlier, colonial stage in the life of Penang, it would also appear to mark a greater confidence in recognising Penang’s heritage.
The following artworks were all commissioned for the 2012 George Town World Heritage Festival. Gibby writes that “only limited information on their locations was provided. Instead, the public was encouraged to actively search for each installation in the Heritage area during the Festival.”
One series of twelve murals was called ‘101 Lost Kittens’, intended to raise awareness of the problem of stray animals, particularly cats. These murals were done by two Malaysian artists, Tang Yeok Khang and Louise Low, and a Thai artist, Natthaton Muangkliang.
Other, miscellaneous artworks:
Those below do not appear in Mike Gibby’s book, so must be very new (or very obscure!) The good condition of many of these suggests that they’re new.
On Love Lane, where a lot of cheap hotels and tourist-oriented cafes are located:
Top image: Untitled and unknown artist, located in a side alley off Lebuh Ah Quee.
In Penang, I was hosted by The Edison George Town and the Macalister Mansion. All other costs were paid by myself, and all opinions are entirely my own. All links are included for informational purposes only.