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Penang street art

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Take Some time to Plan What you Want to See

There are hundreds of these things, and the number is growing.  The Street Art of Penang  is mostly on Penang Island but some (not featured here) are on the mainland too.  Don’t try and see them all. Spend a bit of time reading this article and checking the official online Penang Art Street Maps available  – eg this one from 2014. or this more up to date version – that way you can spend more time enjoying the stuff and less time wandering about at random missing the best pieces.  You will still see more than you have planned. We found that the time spent planning our second day didn’t spoil the fun but rather improved it.  We used this Google Map though I found it rather overwhelming and with the benefit of hindsight I wished it were a bit more selective.

How to Get About.  

It’s small enough to walk.  We were two adults and two kids and on the first day day we walked and the other we hired a four seat pedal car.  It was silly and it was great fun.  If you’re Europen or American, then be aware that Malaysians drive on the left, but you soon get used to it!  

Guided Tours

There are Guided Tours, or as an alternative you can hire a Trishaw if you don’t mind sitting  comfy while someone else sweats.  All the drivers know where the pieces are, especially if you can show them a photo on your phone of the ones you want to see. 
You may as well rent a bike for four like us and sweat on your own.

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Take a Break

There are plenty of coffee shops to take a break and cool off.  My top tip here (really an aide-memoir to self): Tonic Coffee sounds good but isn’t.  My problem was that it sounded good the second time too, some time after I forgot how yukky it was the first time.  It was only as I downed the first mouthful of the second cup that I remembered. . . .

Please also read general disclaimers at the foot of the article.

 

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Overview and Brief History of Penang’s Famous Street Art

George Town is the historic capital of the state of Penang on mainland Malaysia’s west coast and is sited on a 300 sq km offshore Island.  The old town faces east towards the mainland across a 2 km strait. To the west, beyond the skyscrapers of the modern suburbs rises Penang Hill, 800m above sea level and covered in lush jungle.

UNESCO recognised George Town’s fascinating history by awarding it World Heritage status in 2008, Strangely enough that was also how whole street art thing got fired up.  In celebration of UNESCO’s recognition, the Government of Penang commissioned 52 oversize cartoon murals about George Town and its history.  Then in 2012 for the George Town Festival, Penang commissioned Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to produced his distinctive pieces.  His work, even more than the cartoons have become an icon of Penang, and confirmed its status as a major centre for street art. And now there are other murals too by different artists, some very large and some inspired by Zacharevic’s selfie-friendly installation style.

 

The Work of Ernest Zacharevic 

Although not historically the first, Zacharevic’s work is the most famous, so I’ll start with that.  He made his first murals here while on a visit as a tourist in 2011. In his native Vilnius, graffiti and wall painting was illegal and he had become used to the authorities chasing him away and destroying his work soon after its completion.  

Zacharevic was pleasantly surprised to discover that the residents and police in Penang were positive about his paintings and he was neither deterred nor were his murals covered up.  In fact the city appreciated them so much that it commissioned him to do six more pieces for the 2012 George Town Festival under the title “Mirrors Georgetown”.  The artist was 26 at that time and this was his big break.  He has since achieved worldwide fame with pieces in Kuching, USA, UK, Scandinavia and at last in his native Lithuania.

Zacharevic developed a style of three-dimensional installations combining found objects or elements of the wall itself such as doors and windows with (usually) life-sized wall paintings of people, often children.  Some of his works are large flat murals too, all in his unique combination of a light-handed joy of life with a gritty realistic style of painting. In the age of selfies, his installations make perfect settings, and you will find tourists queueing at some of them to make posts for instagram and facebook.

Here are all six of the Zacharevic – George Town 2012 Festival works with a google map location for each (note that the last two are right next to each other).  Also one more of his pieces, from 2013.

Boy on a Chair aka Reaching Up

This is our favourite.  Kids do that standing-on-chairs thing to reach, and here is a fun interpretation of that scene, using a real chair and a real window.  It is also protected from the rain and was given a facelift by the original artist in 2016, so it’s in comparatively good shape.

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Google Map Location for Boy on a Chair

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Kids on a Bicycle

Probably the most photographed one of Zacharevich’s pieces as a non-selfie, This one shows an indescribably lovely depiction of childhood joy.

Google Map Penang Location for Kids on a Bicycle

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Girl in Blue aka Kung Fu Girl

A big picture of a young girl pushing herself up from two window shades.  It is magical how the artist manages to show so much life and emotion in a face that you can hardly see.

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Google Map Location for Girl in Blue 

Trishaw Man

Another larger-than-life depiction.  This one is a few feet above ground level and pretty much covers the whole length of a gable wall.  If I didn’t know this was by Ernest Zacharevich, I wouldn’t have guessed.

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Google Map Location for Trishaw Man

Boy with Pet Dinosaur and Boy on a Motorcycle

And saving a couple of the best ‘til last, these are next to each other, a realistic boy holds the lead of an imaginary pet dinosaur, however another boy on a motorcycle looks nervously back at the couple.  So maybe the dinosaur is real after all?  

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The motorcycle has been “improved” and restored over the years and was originally more decrepit.  On the other hand, the boy and dinosaur are badly eroded. An urban myth says that the original motorbike was abandoned by a German tourist.  

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This work is probably the most selfie-friendly piece by Zacharevic since you can sit on the motorbike’s seat together with the boy, though you might have to wait in a queue to do so!

Google Map Location for Boy With Pet Dinosaur and Boy on a Motorcycle

Postscript – Skippy the Cat

The next year, in 2013 Penang invited Zacharevich back for more.  The second year’s project was about stray cats and was entitled 101 Lost Kittens.  By far the most famous of the lost kittens is Skippy the Cat, a vast but now very faded mural, so faded that it’s possible to miss if you don’t know where to look.  According to a graffiti addendum the kitten who modelled for this mural died in January 2019. The lost kittens project was a kind of treasure hunt for the 2013 Festival, since their locations were not published.

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Google Map Location for Skippy the Cat

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Marking George Town – the 52 Cartoons

Jump back in time to 2008 when George Town was recognised by UNESCO. The Government of Penang wanted to mark this event in some way which celebrated the city’s cultural history both formal and informal.  It initiated a competition called Marking George Town to illustrate its history.  Malaysian agency Sculpture At Work who link sculptors with clients and consultants won the prize.  They proposed giving a humorous twist to historical events by making each one into a cartoon and illustrating the scene in welded steel.  It brought in four cartoonists from whom the City commissioned a total of 52 pieces. 

  • Baba Chuah (Penang): 5 pieces
  • Julian “Lefty” Kam (Penang): 5 pieces
  • Reggie Lee (Penang): 11 pieces
  • Tang Mun Kian (Kuala Lumpur): 31 pieces

Here are our favourite Marking George Town pieces, with a google Penang map location for each, Our favourites are mostly by Tang Mun Kian and Reggie Lee because these two seem to have both the best humour and the liveliest drawing styles.

 

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No Plastic Bag  (by Tang Mun Kian)

A fun piece celebrating the outlawing of plastic carrier bags in 2011 – a basket vendor hopes for  an easy sale to a woman who can’t carry her shopping. Appropriately it is located by a basket shop.

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Google Map Location for No Plastic Bag

Gedung Rumput aka Bad Hay Day (by Reggie Lee)

A cow attempts to pole-vault over the wall because the grass is greener on the other side, or in the words of her thought bubble: because its a “Bad Hay Day” on her side. The piece marks a traditional parking place for bullock carts.  It is on Queen Street also known as Gedung Rumput. The animal’s master is caught napping and the cow is definitely not a bullock.

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Google Map Location for Gedung Rumput-Sculpture

Narrowest Five Foot Way by Julian “Lefty” Kam

This piece is spread along four piers supporting a “five foot way” which is clearly less than five feet wide.  Apparently there used to be one more piece, making five. The five foot ways were roadside arcades designed for shading pedestrian footpaths, though many were used by hawkers and stallholders, so forcing pedestrian traffic back out onto the roads.

Google Map Location for Narrowest Five Foot Way

Spies by Reggie Lee

One of our favourites as a piece of graphic art – though of questionable taste for its xenophobic message.  This cartoon represents Japanese camera shopkeepers from these streets acting as spies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Google Map Location for Spies

 

Quiet Please aka Street Fighters by Reggie Lee

This one shows a bit of anachronistic creative license since the Portugese church here was not contemporary with any street fighting between Chinese secret societies, but the cartoon is full of life and is beautifully executed.

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Google Map location for Quiet Please

Cannon Hole by Tang Mun Kian

A rickshaw man falls (or rather has already fallen, leaving only expletives behind)  into the crater left by a cannon ball after which the street was named.

Google Map Location for Cannon Hole

 

Kopi O by Tang Mun Kian

A waitress in a traditional coffee shop translates a modern laptop-man’s order for designer espresso to simple kopi o or “black coffee”

This is located high up on a wall above a coffee shop.

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Google Map Location for Kopi O

 

Untrained Parakeet by Tang Mun Kian

An indian fortune-teller’s client learns that his fortune is flying away, or maybe the fortune teller has just lost his parakeet?

Google Map Location for Untrained Parakeet

Too Narrow by Tang Mun Kian

A simple funny picture of a rickshaw catastrophe by trying to squeeze through a constriction in a narrow street.  This is very close to Kids on a Bike

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Google Map Location of Too Narrow

 

Then and Now by Tang Mun Kian

This one shows how a street once famous for selling metal craftsmanship now recycles tins, bottles and paper, but the scene is not really so different.

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Google Map location for Then and Now 

Shorn Hair by Tang Mun Kian

Showing the tradition (apparently) of barbers alongside the canal throwing waste hair out of the window into the water.

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Google Map Location of Shorn Hair

 

Jimmy Choo by Baba Chuah

Jimmy Choo came from Penang and learned how to make shoes here before he emigrated to London, trained formally and became famous for his work for Lady Diana Spencer later Princess of Wales RIP.  Stories on the web vary about where he served his apprenticeship in Penang. The Cartoon shows him with his master whoever that may have been and a prospective customer.

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Google Map Location of Jimmy Choo Cartoon

Three Generations by Baba Chuah

In this cartoon, three generations of customers enjoy Penang street food.  It’s a pretty good representation of something you should be doing yourself. The idea is that this street has been selling these lovely delicacies for (at least) that long.  Don’t miss it. It is half way up a wall!

Google Map Location of Three Generations

 

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Other Works

Here are some others we liked.  I have researched names where I can.  Unfortunately my records of where they are are a bit dusty and info I can find on the web is inconsistent. if you want to see them, please ask a trishaw driver and let me know where you can find them! There are lots more and here are our favourites:

Brother and Sister on a Swing by Louis Gan

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This famous selfie-friendly one looks like a Zacharevic but is done by another artist, very well we think.

Google Map location for Brother and Sister on a Swing

Here are some others we liked.  I have researched names where I can.  Unfortunately my records of where they are are a bit dusty and info I can find on the web is inconsistent. if you want to see them, please ask a trishaw driver and let me know where you can find them!

Here are some others we liked.  I have researched names where I can.  Unfortunately my records of where they are are a bit dusty and info I can find on the web is inconsistent. if you want to see them, please ask a trishaw driver and let me know where you can find them!

I want Bao by WK Setor

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Another selfie friendly work inspired by Zaharevic, The bike and basket are part of the installation.  This one was commissioned by a pastry shop owner and modelled by his two children.

Google Map location for I want Bao

 

Untitled by Emmanuel Jarus

Enormous beautiful portrait of fellow artist Caryn Koh by Emmanuel Jarus painted in 2016 

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Google Map Location is opposite Jalan on this link

Lion Dance  Armenian Street?

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Burning aka Only You Can Stop Air Pollution on Lebuh Ah Quee

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Magic

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And Lastly a couple more Lost Cats (At least lost by us!)

Kung Fu Cat VS. Mickey Minion

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Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat

Location of Love Me Like Your Fortune Cat

 

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Conclusion and Read more

We loved Penang and George Town for much more than the Street Art and remember it as a lovely place to stay. 

 

Penang Street Art – Pin it for later!!!

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Disclaimer

This website uses affiliate links for income and support.  If you like our website please consider using these links. You will be directed to the vendor and we will get a small commission on your purchase price at no increased cost to you.

We have researched facts stated here as far as practicable but please check anything critical before committing your time and money. We do not claim any special knowledge or expertise and we are not consultants for our readers.

 

 

Disclaimer 

 

This website uses affiliate links for income and support.  If you like our website please consider using these links. You will be directed to the vendor and we will get a small commission on your purchase price at no increased cost to you.

We have researched facts stated here as far as practicable but please check anything critical before committing your time and money. We do not claim any special knowledge or expertise and we are not consultants for our readers.

 

Ania James

photographer, traveller, mother of twin girls, wife, worldschooler, rulebreaker

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