How street art hunts in Malaysia’s George Town reveal Penang’s rich history

George Town, its capital, is renowned for its well-preserved colonial architecture, and the city’s recognition by Unesco as a World Heritage site is rooted in its diverse cultural influences and historical significance.

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Street art in George Town. Photo: Getty Images

Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted the first murals on George Town’s streets in 2012. They have been joined by a mosaic of other works, contributing to the city’s status as a global street art destination.

As visitors explore the vibrant alleys, they delve into a living canvas that narrates Penang’s journey from a bustling trading hub to a cultural haven.

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“Using a map is like going treasure hunting. The only difference is to actually find each item of street art on the list and tick it off,” said 36-year-old Japanese tourist Aiko Matsumura.

Visitors traverse the streets armed with cameras and a spirit of exploration, undertaking a picturesque journey on which every corner reveals a new chapter in Penang’s artistic narrative.

Some tourists, captivated by the whimsical characters and thought-provoking scenes, aim for well-composed photo-ops, yet the allure goes beyond the visual delight.

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Street art on Armenian Street in George Town. Photo: Shutterstock

George Town’s street art is not just an Instagrammable moment. Each mural is a snippet of Penang’s multifaceted identity, and curious tourists often find themselves unravelling the rich tapestry of the city’s past.

It is not uncommon to see visitors engaged in animated conversations with locals, eager to understand the cultural nuances and historical anecdotes behind the vibrant brushstrokes. The walls of George Town, once mere dividers of space, have become an interactive canvas, connecting tourists with the soul of Penang.

“There are so many [murals] here,” says 65-year-old Kirsten Muller, from Austria. “Some are really exquisite, while some are normal. Regardless, I feel all have their own unique strokes and have different stories behind them.

“The most interesting thing is to understand the story behind each work of art. Sometimes, we use the internet to find out more about the stories. Sometimes, some of the backgrounds are included on the art itself. It’s fascinating to see Penang for what it truly is behind these stories.”

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“Little Children on a Bicycle”, by Ernest Zacharevic, in George Town. Photo: Shutterstock

The murals are not frozen relics; they are living expressions that mirror Penang’s heartbeat.

In 2012, Zacharevic was commissioned to create a series of six street art murals for the George Town Festival (an annual event that this year is scheduled for July 19 to July 28). He breathed life into the city’s walls, blending historical and cultural elements of Penang into his art and transforming his pieces into portals to another time.

The allure of George Town’s street art movement has since remained unwavering. The murals have become not just a form of expression but guardians of a heritage that refuses to be forgotten.

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Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic in Miami, Florida, in 2015. Photo: Getty Images

A whimsical mural of children on a bicycle greets you like an old friend, evoking carefree days when laughter echoed through the air, as does a thought-provoking mural of little children on a swing.

“Times have changed but Penang will always be Penang,” says 78-year-old resident V. Karuppiah. “No matter where we go around Penang Island, we can still see a mixture of tradition and culture despite the modernisation that surrounds us.”

In a 2016 interview with Time Out, Zacharevic revealed that what was initially conceived as a short visit to Penang, a casual sojourn to “hang out [with his friend] for a bit”, took an unforeseen turn, turning into a four-year stay.

This period eventually led to a significant life event for Zacharevic, as he tied the knot with Sheena Liam – a former Malaysian winner of Asia’s Next Top Model – in 2018.

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Zacharevic with his wife Sheena Liam. Photo: Instagram / @sheenaliam

Comparisons with other street art around the world pale in the face of George Town’s living walls. While the world may boast larger canvases and grander strokes, George Town’s murals wear the patina of time and tell tales etched in the very bricks of the city.

Similar to Berlin, in Germany, Penang has experienced significant historical and cultural shifts, and these are reflected in George Town’s street art.

But while many of Berlin’s larger-than-life murals are charged with political and social narratives, George Town’s more intimate street art is a testament to a city that balances on a tightrope between tradition and modernity.

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The Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple in George Town. Photo: Shutterstock

These are not mere works of art; they weave in elements of local culture and folklore and contemporary issues, inviting viewers to gaze into Penang Island’s soul.

In a world where walls often divide, George Town’s street art unites. It invites both residents and tourists to be part of a narrative that transcends time and culture.

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