Forget its fabulous shophouse architecture and world-renowned hawker stalls (for a minute, at least) – the George Town of today has become synonymous with street art.
The trend goes back to 2010, when the government of Penangcommissioned the studio Sculpture At Work (favekad.com) to create a series of cartoon steel art pieces to decorate its capital, George Town. Affixed to walls, these 3D artworks detail local customs and heritage with humour while also providing a quirky counterpoint to the natural urban beauty of the city’s historic core. Examples range from a mural on Lebuh Muntri marking the shop where world-famous shoemaker (and Penang native) Jimmy Choo first apprenticed, to a tuak(toddy or palm wine) shop on Lorong Pasar fronted by a nearly life-sized mural of a man scaling a palm tree.
But the real star of George Town's street art scene is undoubtedly Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic (facebook.com/Ernestzachas). For the 2012 George Town Festival, Zacharevic was commissioned to do a series of public paintings in central George Town, many of which he chose to combine with objects such as swings, motorcycles and extant architectural features. The art has been a smash hit, with Zacharevic's most famous piece, a girl and a boy riding a real bicycle on Lebuh Armenian (Armenian Street), now a legitimate tourist destination in George Town, complete with long queues for selfies and a dedicated souvenir stall. Zacharevic's images are now also found on shirts, notebooks and other souvenirs - often without his permission.
'The initial reaction was surprise,' says Zacharevic of local people's impressions of his earliest pieces. 'There was no street art scene [at the time] in Malaysia, and people had a negative stigma about graffiti.'
Adds the artist, who has been described as 'Asia's Banksy', 'I wasn’t surprised that the paintings stood out, but I am surprised that they’ve lasted this long and have become so popular.'