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To begin the journey of getting to know our island’s street art, you must first visit two murals. These are not difficult to find as both are painted along a weatherbeaten wall of Ah Quee Street. There are many alleys around this vicinity, so keep an eye on their Paris-green signage leading to the said street.
Follow your trusty map and you’ll soon encounter the first mural of a little boy, restraining his pet tyrannosaurus from munching on an unsuspecting teenaged boy on his motorbike. This medium-scale piece was a commissioned masterpiece by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic who shot to social network fame from his portfolio of murals – drafted and painted during a point in George Town Festival 2012.
From there, a few paces forward, along the same street, you’ll find a new, contrasting work. Little is known about the artist who painted this second mural of a half-faced Chinese opera beauty whose features are gorily scraped to the bones.
Accompanied by strokes of Chinese characters that translate to ‘our art is dying’, the mural reflects the slow death of our tradition, heritage and culture – in particular the fading art of Chinese opera, a musical theatre of the Chinese community complete with dramatic makeup, headdress and costumes.
However, could the artist also be interpreting our diminishing local art scene due to our chaotic chase for ‘the next best art’? The operatic beauty piece questions if Penang has lost its identity from these newfound street murals. But then, has the limelight on Penang’s street art proven otherwise?
Where it started
When Kuala Lumpur-based art company, Sculpture at Work won the rights to the state government’s commissioned art challenge ‘Marking George Town: An Idea Competition for UNESCO World Heritage Site’ in 2009, Sculpture’s creative director Tang Mun Kian knew this was the start of the largest art assignment in the state. ‘Usually, a client would come to us with a brief saying, “we have this space, can you propose something?” But Marking George Town’s brief was more a matter of “We have this city, what can you do with it?” We got quite excited because we'd never done anything like this – not on this scale.’
Today, Sculpture at Work has hung all 52 commissioned steel rod caricatures. With a mammoth batch of caricatures to create, their team head to the streets and plucked their inspiration from lively Penangites going about their daily chores and their personalities.
‘The streets of George Town were named after the trades, people and events, which means every street has its own unique story. With the rising rental, many of the original inhabitants moved out and with them, the stories as well,’ Tang discovers. ‘So, the idea is to put the stories back into the city,’ he adds. Within the confines of their workshop, every single steel diorama was bent and shaped to bring stories and inspiration to life. ‘The (Penang) weather is not a problem. The only time we were outdoors is when we had to do research, site recce, taking photos and installations,’ he recalls.
For Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic who spent most of his hours outdoors, the island weather hasn’t been as kind. ‘Of course, it gets hot but it is easy to work around it,’ Ernest says. ‘Either early morning or at night, or overcast days or after the rain, it’s much easier [to work here] than in winter conditions back in Europe,’ he explains his ‘open air workstation’.
Penang-based Ernest’s mischievousness comes through in his interactive murals. Prior to the fame that followed his contribution in 'Mirrors George Town' for George Town Festival 2012 (GTF 2012), he painted on a number of walls around the city. This includes one of an old wooden clog painter on the wall of Armenian Art Café in Armenian Street as well as a red heart split into two by phone booths at Love Lane.
Admittedly, the Penang crowd wasn’t as responsive – or even noticed – his first mural in Love Lane. ‘The first mural was way back in 2011. It was a portrait of an Indian woman. ‘It was painted within a few days, so not a lot of people had seen it but a video is still available on my website and Ownly Penang. People’s response wasn’t so positive back then, but later on people took a closer look and learned to appreciate public art,’ he says.
He has since added eight more murals during GTF 2012. The John Lennon of the batch, so to speak, is on Armenian Street of two cheery children riding on a bicycle. ‘My main inspiration was an overwhelming fascination with George Town and its inhabitants. Well, inspiration always comes from a fascination with something new and an urge to explore it,’ he declares.
Growing art scene
There’s an unmistaken vibrancy and liveliness that fills Penang and the best way to take pleasure from it all is to venture along its small side lanes dotted with secluded hawker stalls and hidden alleys to uncover the source of its energy. While some covered pathways lead to dead ends, others will guide you to the busy street markets, quaint antique shops, stuffy kopitiams and undiscovered corners of famous attractions to surprise you.
These elements inspire local and global artist communities including artist Lee Choon Kee. His lively painting of Campbell street market and a banana stall at a secluded Penang street are showcased in this year’s ‘Nostalgic Landscape of Northern Malaysia: Solo Watercolour Painting exhibition’.
Ooi Geok Ling, Chairman of Penang Global Tourism (PGT), is unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the movement, ‘I always thought Penang had an art scene but not in-your-face big galleries and that sort of thing. The artist themselves – despite the lack of big galleries – have always been there.’ With her wide-eyed sanguinity, she is a firm believer that Penang’s effervescent culture is enough to feed the hungriest artist and painters such as Ernest Zacharevic. ‘I think Ernest captured the essence [of Penang]. I know he spent a lot of time here, soaking it all in when he was visiting. I think he felt it and he could translate it to that [his murals].’
The subject of street murals is neither old nor new. Expressionism has always played an essential role in the local and street art scenes. Graffiti, for instance – setting aside the debate on the definition of graffiti and murals – was shaped many years back and more so in 2011, when the Rotary Club of Tanjung Bungah and the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP) established a public graffiti park at the Youth Park also known as Penang Municipal Park. Here is an art haven dedicated to budding street artists to channel their creativity via spray paint and a wild imagination.
Sculptural art, on the other hand, is a different ball game as society’s perception of this form is associated with tacky artworks. ‘Some people think sculptures are something you put to beautify a roundabout or some water features or some motifs on a lamp post. We had calls asking if we do cladding for a building, signage, entrance arches and flower pots,’ Tang of Sculpture at Work says ruefully. With more exposure bestowed on their steel-rod caricatures, locals and tourists are slowly taken by sculptural art, albeit with a batch of funny comments in tow such as, as Tang recalls candidly, ‘Why no colour? No budget is it? Oh, it’s a wire, not some scribbling on the wall.’
Too much art?
Recently, two new murals sprouted unexpectedly in George Town, which led to widespread shares on Facebook and Twitter. Well-received yet non-commissioned artist Louis Gan initiated his own interpretation of childhood in Penang through a mural of a brother and sister balancing on a swing (his second and third murals are spotted at Gat Lebuh Chulia and Lorong Kinta respectively).
His mural is on the wall of a printing warehouse off Gat Chulia Street. With it surfaced questions such as: What happens if someone wants to paint on the wall? How do they go about doing it?
‘It wasn’t unexpected and I had expected people to ask such questions,’ Ooi of PGT admits as much, adding, ‘So, I wrote to MPPP but since they haven’t decided on the license [for this sort of thing], it’s then not necessary. But I think Penang has that ability to evoke you [creatively]. It’s always a place where artists come and it’s not difficult for an artist to fall in love with it – it’s colourful, it’s diverse and it depends on what you put up.’
The question remains, has George Town been invaded with too much street art? ‘Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. That is what’s happening to Penang,’ Ernest observes and continues, ‘People just feel like they need to jump on the bandwagon and milk the cash cow while it lasts.’ And that sparks the boost of unofficial merchandise like note pads, key chains and postcards with snap shots of Ernest’s series of murals.
However, this ‘art rush’ can lead and inspire more artworks to happen. ‘Street art is exposed to the elements. It’ll fade, get vandalised and what-not. In a way, it’s renewable. If the owner decides to renovate and repaint the wall, the sculpture or the wall mural has to go. Which is also good, we’ll get to see new work, new thinking,’ says Tang.
On the other hand, the abundance of art could be damaging to a heritage city as fragile as George Town. ‘Some parts of George Town is becoming so crowded like Malacca’s Jonker Street. I’m not sure if it’s the art that is attracting the crowd. George Town is a heritage city and we have to be careful. Instead of helping the city creatively, we may end up endangering it,’ Tang warns.
When murals fade
One of Ernest’s earliest murals is of his old neighbour, a wooden clogs painter, painted on the faded wall of Armenian Art Café in Armenian Street. As murals grow faint in time or vandalised to the core, what happens when these artworks disappear? ‘I’m such an optimist and a Penangite at heart,’ Ooi confesses, ‘If Ernest’s street art could be born one day, tomorrow something new would come up. I believe the next one will be unexpected and unexpected means not knowing what is it going to be.’ Such are the ingredients needed for Penang’s street art future – optimism and a hunger for surprise.