When Streets have Life – Penang Street Art

posted in: Asia, Cities, Heritage, Malaysia | 79

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

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 Wall 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

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

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 in Georgetown

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

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
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

Map the lanes & Kopi C Cafe

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

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
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.

Also read about the Heritage Chinese Mansion – Pinang Peranakan

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 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
Playing with the Kids -Penang Street Arts

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
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

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
Penang Street Art in Kopi C Cafe

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
Bus Stop in Penang

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 Penang 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.
  • The Penang Street Art location are central to Georgetown. You will find plenty of hotels in Georgetown located within walking distance around the key Penang Street Art Locations.

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



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