23 July 2016: Street Art Penang Style

l came to live in Penang in 2011 and quickly discovered its vibrant mixture of wall murals, steel sculptures, and Indian kolams. Art, it seemed, was everywhere. Some of this artwork, l soon learned, was officially commissioned, but much was wild or perhaps more accurately, an unauthorised expression of life and free spirits. – Mike Gibby

Years of unsympathetic development and inappropriate makeovers may have left George Town a pale reminder of its former glory, but many believe that the city is still very much a picturesque place. This fact can be attested to by the various pictorials on George Town published over the years. The latest one to hit the shelves is Mike Gibby’s Street Art Penang Style. The title says it all – for this book, Mike has chosen ‘all the artwork in Penang, where there is neither an entrance charge, nor is confined to a museum or gallery’.

Created using various mediums such as paint, metal and concrete, street art can be found on five-foot way columns, chicks, walls, doors and windows. Interestingly, and this may be news for some people, but public art in Penang is not a recent phenomenon. The first example, the Francis Light Memorial, was created in 1824. Old and new, Street Art Penang Style serves as a document, and eventually a time capsule, of the public art that is very much a part of Penang’s culture and history.

Today’s street art is far more individualistic; it is also largely ephemeral, with the short lifetime of these artworks being as much a consequence of the materials used as the ‘canvas’ on which they are created. They have created a buzz around town and support an entire ecosystem of bicycle rentals, stalls selling T-shirts and fridge magnets, as well as providing custom to countless hotels, and food and drinks outlets.

The artists include Ernest Zacharevic, whose popular murals – ‘Kids on Bicycle’ and ’Old Motorcycle’ have become icons of the inner city. Many other ‘lesser known’ artists, like Baba Chuah, Julian ‘Lefty’ Kam, Reggie Lee, Tang Mun Kian, Encik Osman, Louis Gan, Simon Tan, Julia Volchkova and a host of unnamed contributors who have enriched George Town’s street scene are also featured in this book. The most encouraging aspect of this street art, according to Mike, is that the vast majority represent art rather than vandalism, are celebratory rather than simply disfiguring, and are often humorous or affectionate rather than hateful. They bring a smile and a bounce to your step rather than a sigh or shake of the head; many of these murals are regarded with affection by the majority of George Town’s residents. There are exceptions and inclusions that can be debated, but certainly the aim was to be inclusive.

An alphabetical listing of the artwork names, most of them ‘unofficial’, together with their locations, is not only useful and practical but will provide street art seekers with many hours of fun, adventure and discovery.

About the author: Originally from the UK, Mike Gibby and his wife now live in Penang on the MM2H programme. Like many visitors to Penang, he began to visit, photograph and ‘collect’ the murals and sculptures, which served as an introduction to both George Town and ‘greater’ Penang. Besides bicycling, Mike is also a keen hiker, photographer and explorer. He has authored several books, all on Malaysian topics: Islands of Malaysia (1994); Crowned with the Stars (2005) and Penang Hill, A Journey Through Time (2016).