When Streets have Life – Penang Street Art

posted in: Asia, Cities, Heritage, Malaysia | 59

Typically when you arrive at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you expect the tales of yesteryears preserved within the century-old walls. There is a certain thrill in walking along these to unravel those lost stories and that is possibly why I love these sites. However, this time, it was different. Not only did the streets of this UNESCO site tell me the stories of the past, they also, shared some from the present. The streets of George Town in Penang were alive. And breathing life into them was the Penang Street Art.

Penang Street Art that brings the UNESCO Heritage Site Alive
Penang Street Art that brings the UNESCO Heritage Site Alive

For those who know of Penang, the first thing that they would talk about would be its street art. Naturally, it was the first thing I learned about this town when I did my little research. I wondered why the fuss but it was only when I visited that I realized that the street art here was about how the old never aged and could be mindfully blended into the present. The old buildings that earned this town its UNESCO status were still full of life and color and had not got buried with time. What is more, you can pretty much weave your own story with the Penang Street Art, proving the fact that the streets have moved with time. How?

Well – for that you have to go through my own tale. So, let’s plunge in to understand what this fuss is all about.

Introduction to Penang

The UNESCO heritage city of George Town in Penang
The UNESCO heritage city of George Town in Penang

Separated by a Strait from the Malaysian mainland, Penang is a small island state with George Town as its capital. The island was a British Colony with the famed East India Company having its headquarters here. It was quite an important seaport for them from the 1780s to the 1950s, after which it became independent and a part of Malaysia. The town has a heavy influence of not just the colonial British culture but also, Indian and Chinese cultures. As per me, this very blend of three different cultures is a reason for the unique charm that Penang holds – all of it still visible in the homes, its inhabitants and its streets.

About Penang Street Art

One of the old Chinese Homes in George Town, Penang
One of the old Chinese Homes in George Town, Penang

George Town with its old mansions and buildings was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. Rightly so, given the wealth of history that its buildings and streets enclosed. However, with the status, came in a small issue for no modifications of changes could be made to the streets or the buildings as they were now labeled out for preservation. To brighten these streets and promote its culture, the George Town municipal corporation commissioned several artists to create masterpieces without changing any structure. These today, have become landmarks of Penang and a huge reason for tourists to walk along these lanes to discover the history and culture of Penang.

Of Iron and Metal along with Paint

Penang Street Art
Penang Street Art

Penang Street Art was largely unveiled during the 2012 George Town Festival and while there were several international artists who inscribed their names onto these historic walls, the most famous among them is Ernest Zacharevic. His contribution to Penang Street Art includes 6 different scenes from the local lives and culture, all of which have now become the most photographed spots in the city. These are now literally, the landmark paintings of George Town for every magnet, T-shirt or memorabilia that you buy in Penang, has these etched onto them.

One of the 6 iconic Penang Street Arts by Ernest Zacharevic
One of the 6 iconic Penang Street Arts by Ernest Zacharevic

Hang on though! Penang Street Art as I discovered, was not just about painted scenes. What I found were corners of ingenious metal and wrought iron arts that gave the whole street a new feel. Check some of these out.

Wrought Iron arts that add to the Penang Street Arts scene
Wrought Iron arts that add to the Penang Street Arts scene
Metal used in Penang Street Art
Metal used in Penang Street Art

It was not just the walls but the bus stops too, that was equally vibrant and cheerful. I wish we had some of these back home, for they do make waiting so much more pleasurable.

Colorful Bus stops in Penang
Colorful Bus stops in Penang

Map the lanes & Kopi C Cafe

Social messages through Penang Street Art
Social messages through Penang Street Art

The best way to discover the Street Art of Penang is to just get a map of the streets. You can get one for free at most hotels or even download one from the internet. Follow it around to not just discover the street art but also, the historic mansions and homes of the past. I could have spent hours and maybe a complete day doing this, for every lane and corner in Georgetown was filled with treasures.

Kopi C Cafe - the longest cafe in Penang
Kopi C Cafe – the longest cafe in Penang

Somewhere connecting two of those lanes is a famous cafe called Kopi C Cafe. The cafe literally connects two streets – Lebuh Pantai and Lebuah Victoria and has earned the sobriquet of “Longest Cafe in Penang’.It is also, known as China House and while it maybe famous for its live music, food and drinks – for me, it was one museum of unusual art.

Street Art within Kopi C Cafe
Street Art within Kopi C Cafe
The long corridors of Kopi C Cafe
The long corridors of Kopi C Cafe

A walk through this cafe was like a photography tour. From its wall arts to its library and quaint old world furniture, there was so much to just see. Why – they even had an open courtyard with a small pool and a touch of China Town decor. So, whether you are a book lover or prefer your coffee by the water, you can just pick your spot here.

Art by the Pool within the Kopi C Cafe
Art by the Pool within the Kopi C Cafe

My Penang Street Art Story

My minion friend who paid me a surprise visit in Penang
My minion friend who paid me a surprise visit in Penang                                       Pic Courtesy: Jyotsana Ramani

My day started when suddenly a Minion burst through the walls onto the streets of Penang. We spend some time talking to each other about how one could go bananas in this town with all its interesting sights. He said he knew the perfect guide to ensure that I did not lose my way around and that is when he introduced me to these little kids who were just having their breakfast. He said that these little kids were the best to take me around the town as they knew it quite well.

My kid guides for the Penang Street Arts Tour
My kid guides for the Penang Street Arts Tour
Playing with the Kids -Penang Street Arts
Playing with the Kids -Penang Street Arts                                                                                        Pic Courtesy: Jyotsana Ramani

The kids were funny and friendly. They captivated me with their friendly banter as we took our turns on the swing. All the while they continued to share interesting tidbits about the streets of Penang. From their great-grandparents to their uncles and aunts, they had several mansions and interesting places to show me. And so, we set off exploring and visiting some of these relatives.

Meeting the relatives during the Penang Street Art tour
Meeting the relatives during the Penang Street Art tour
And some more relatives that we met during the Penang Street Art tour
And some more relatives that we met during the Penang Street Art tour

While we were walking, they requested me to show them my Canon and Action camera. I being the naive one, handed those to them. And Behold! The naughty kids added that to their basket and tried to cycle away.

The Iconic Penang Street art by Ernest Zacharevic
The truants running away with my belongings. The Iconic Penang Street art by Ernest Zacharevic                     Pic Courtesy: Suresh

As much as I tried to hold on to their cycle, I failed. The pesky kids threw my hat to me and kept cycling away. I rushed around quickly to find this kind gentleman on his motorbike. I hopped onto it and asked him to zip away behind those truants.

Penang Street Art by Ernest Zacharevic
Let’s catch those kids                                                                                                                    Pic Courtesy: Snigdha Bhowmick
Penang Street Art in Kopi C Cafe
Complaining to the Chinese Guard. Penang Street Art in Kopi C Cafe                                                   Pic Credits: Shally Makin

The bike unfortunately, broke down but lucky for me, as I found a Chinese guard. I rushed to him and told him my story. The guy was quite amused and told me that he knew where the kids where. He took me to their playground, where the kids were playing basketball. Caught, they quickly gave me back my property with a promise to never do it again. I could not but forgive them all said and done, they did show me around quite a bit. They did make my Penang Street Art expedition an adventurous one. So, with a quick wave and a flying kiss, I bid them goodbye and took my bus home!

Penang Street Art
The pesky kids playing Basket Ball.
Bus Stop in Penang
Taking my bus home                                                                                                                   Pic Courtesy: Shally Makin

Well, that is my story with the Penang Street Art and you all now know, that I ain’t lying for the pictures are the proof. 🙂 You too, can weave your tale around these magnificent pieces of art and what is more, become a part of this historic town for when there is a story, there will be memories and it is those memories – that bring and leave the place alive. Don’t you agree?

Getting here

  • Penang is accessible by air and road from Kuala Lumpur and other major cities of the world. There are plenty of flights that get you straight into Penang like Malindo Air, that operates in 14 different countries.
  • George Town is the 2nd largest city in Malaysia. Once in Penang, you should head here by taxi or bus. Armenian Street is the best place to start your walking tour here.

Travel Tips

  • Here is the official website of Penang State Tourism. You can even download the Penang Street Art brochure from this site.
  • Penang is great throughout the year. It is quite humid and warm in the mornings and might get a little chilly in Winter (December to February) in the evenings.
  • There is plenty to see along the lanes of George Town. So, make sure you are wearing comfortable, flat shoes and cotton clothes.
  • Drink plenty of water while walking around
  • There are plenty of cafes and restaurants along these streets.
  • If walking is too tiring, you can hire a Trishaw for around 20 Ringits to take you around the entire place. The only catch is that they will not stop at each of the masterpieces.

P.S: I was invited by Penang State Tourism and Malindo Air to visit Penang. 

 

 

Share the Thrill of Travel

59 Responses

  1. Vicki Garside

    I love the street art in Penang! So many incredible murals and designs to explore. I love the young boy on the motorbike, and the iconic swings, but my favorite would have to be the minion!

    • Ami

      🙂 I am unable to decide my favorite. I loved all of them. And then there were some that I missed :(. Thanks for stopping by Vicki

  2. Abhinav Singh

    The street art look so real. I loved the picture where you are standing on a swing. It is difficult to differentiate what’s real and what is painting. It is worth it to travel to Penang just to see these.

    • Ami

      Ha ha. I know I just blended into the story. But that is the best part of this place. The art is not passive but very engaging. Hope you get to visit soon Abhinav

  3. Maggie

    That is some gorgeous street art! Those artists are really talented. My favorite is the two kids on the bicycle!

  4. vukojevic

    Oh my goodness what a gorgeous city! I never new Penang had such beautiful street art. I love that they are incorporating iron and metal into the art. The ones with the bicycle and motorcycle are too cool! Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  5. Shibani

    I must admit I wasn’t much aware that Penang has a tint of Indian culture but I know that now 🙂 I love street art, I find that is actually a nice way to know about the culture of the place. But the ones here are just awesome, I loved how you converted your photographic moments into a lovely tale and it really felt real 🙂 Love all of your pictures, but the one with you on the swing would have to be my favorite!!

  6. oneearthtooless

    What a visual treat Ami. Loved every bit of it! I keep going to KL for work, next time a couple of days to Penag is a must on my list 🙂 Thank you for this

  7. xhobdo

    Truly amazing wall arts. Thanks a lot for all awesome pics. Great post.
    Happy Diwali to you and your family.

  8. Soumya Nambiar

    I love how you weaved a story through all the Street art. It is so refreshing to read. They are so vibrant and so full of life and I love how they have added fixtures to enhance the effects. Lovely pictures as always.
    I am off to Malaysia in couple of months. Will definitely ping you for inputs. Still not sure if we will add Penang though.

    • Ami

      If you can, you most definitely should add Penang to your itinerary. It is quite an unusual place. Thanks for stopping by Soumaya

  9. Lydia Smith

    Here comes Ami the story teller. Oh my word! I couldn’t help but be amused as I read through this post. I also want to visit Penang and recreate my own story. I really enjoyed your story and I’m sure I’d love the memories I’d make. Penang , I must say, is a beautiful city of art.

    • Ami

      Thank you Lydia. Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope to be able to read your story through the Penang Street Art soon. Cheers

  10. James

    I’m impressed you walked around Georgetown and photographed all this street art. I was so hot that I only managed to photograph one piece of the street art – the no carrier bags one. The colourful bus stop you photographed is something unique which I’ve not seen before.

    • Ami

      It is a little humid here but I was beyond caring for the art here had me completely occupied. I hope you get to it in slightly better weather. Thanks for stopping by James.

  11. Yukti

    Street art along the streets of Penang is really so beautiful and lovely. As I take part in art exhibitions, this street art would really inspire me a lot. I should make a plan to visit this place. You are true with these also art, we can weave many stories and some can be funny too.

  12. Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Ami,

    What awesome shots. Love the one with the kids appearing to stand on the swing. Creative!

    I recall seeing street art of tapirs – or maybe 1, cannot remember- simply looking up, and next to the big creatures was graffiti to the effect of “Guess I am the next to be erased.” It was a classic flip off to people who erase or paint over the street art.

    Cool post, awesome snaps. Thanks for sharing Ami.

    Ryan

    • Ami

      Thanks Ryan. These guys sure have some creative art. I loved them all and then of course, some that I missed. Cheers

  13. Alok Singhal

    You have weaved magic with that story of yours…indeed imaginative.

    Art is a great way to promote tourism, and I feel the authorities did a commendable job. To have Ernest spread his magic all over Penang is so wonderful…each art seems like telling a story to be relived.

  14. Neha Verma

    The street art of Penang is definitely impressive. I had seem a glimpse of it on your facebook post and now got to read and see a lot more. The pictures are so lively and so well placed….I admire the creator of these street arts, And you definitely have got an eye for them 🙂

  15. Backpackways

    I love the fact how creatively you weaved a tale with these impressive artworks. Penang looks absolutely stunning and it’s nice to know some insights about the place along with your amusing story.

  16. Sandy N Vyjay

    Street art is something that has always enthralled me.The street art of Penang is really colourful and lively. A silent ode to the creative genius of unsung and unknown artists.Your pictures have captured the vibrancy of the art wonderfuly well. The picture of the women relaxing on a bench is really superb.

  17. Marvi

    I’ve first read about the Penang Street Art months ago and it did interest me. Now, reading it again, makes me want to visit it too! I love how the artists have fused ordinary street items to their art. And not just the old but the modern art, as well! (That minion street art was just too cute!) Such a creative move from them and lovely to know that the government has supported this!

    • Ami

      In fact it was initiated by the Government, which makes it even more amazing..doesn’t it? Glad you liked the post Marvi.

  18. Medha Verma

    It was only a week back that I was going through my own pictures of Penang (I hardly had one day to spend there, while I was on a cruise to Malaysia) and I remember walking through these streets and seeing all this street art! It was about 5 years ago and I don’t know why I didn’t take a LOT of pictures, the street art was so amazing, so instagrammable. I am so happy to read your post and see all the pictures that you took, it brings back great memories!

    • Ami

      I would love to do it all over again for I am pretty sure I missed a lot here. Won’t be surprised if you too, would want to. Thanks Medha for the comments.

  19. Kavita Favelle

    I love street art! And it’s particularly interesting when combined with world heritage old architecture, as you say, it’s not what you might expect. I really appreciate your intro to Penang as well, I like to understand the history and culture so I can put the place into context. My favourite is the iconic one of the motorcycle boy on that red double door. But I also love the minion and the two children on the swing.

    • Ami

      I still have difficulty picking my favorite. Each of them are so creative and I know I missed a few too :(. Some other day . Thanks Kavita for the lovely comment.

  20. Marcelle Simone Heller

    In Penang you can speak of living history! What a beautiful way of a city to enhance its past and present. If I never thought of visiting Penang in Malaysia before, I consider it now!

    • Ami

      Yep, he is so cute…the dragon and the boy. I love the creative expressions here. Thanks for stopping by Debra.

  21. hertraveltherapy

    I loved Penang when I was there a few years ago. I recognise a few of these street art pieces, but I definitely missed out on seeing a lot of them! I found the heat so prohibitive during the day and so I was probably wandering around in a heat daze and not looking down side alleys! Georgetown is a really great city though and I particularly loved the street food offerings there.

  22. Sam Sparrow

    Oh wow, the street art is incredible! I love to visit UNESCO sites exactly for the reasons you described – so you can find out more about the past, but I love that this site is still buzzing with life and the street art is incredible. I love to search for street art in every city I visit. I love the swings, they are so cool!

Would love to know what you think