The street art in Penang is about so much more than an interactive backdrop for your Instagram photos, the murals illustrate the story of George Town. Sculptures explain how roads got their names, signs describe the heritage of the area and large-scale portraits represent George Town businesses, past and present.
When we took ourselves on a self-guided walking tour of George Town, we came away with so much more than a bunch of pretty photos. I came home with a better understanding of Penang too.
Brief history of street art in George Town, Penang
Penang was not nearly as prominently placed on the international tourist scene until a Lithuanian artist named Ernest Zacharevic changed the fate of the crumbling heritage city in 2012.
Prior to Zacharevic putting Penang on the map, George Town, which was the first British settlement in Southeast Asia, had been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. To celebrate this recognition the State Government held a competition to find artists who could make signage for the ‘living museum’. The winners were Sculptures at Work and they made the 52 steel rod caricatures called Voices from the People that explain the names and characteristics of the historic streets of George Town.
Then in 2012 Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to create large-scale murals for the George Town Arts & Culture Festival, and his work celebrated the people of Penang on such a personal level that the portraits soon became world-famous.
Today, Zacharevic’s work sits alongside all sorts of murals that celebrate the local community, businesses and even stray animals of Penang.
The murals you must not miss in George Town
Some of the must-see murals in George Town include:
Works by Ernest Zacharevic:
Other favourites by Ernest are The boy and His Dinosaur on Ah Quee Street and Little Girl in Blue on Muntri Street.
Murals with a cause:
If you like cats, you’ll love Penang as there are several murals depicting cats and dogs (such as the well-known Skippy Comes to Penang on Armenian Street) that were painted as part of the George Town Festival in 2013 by “Artists for Stray Animals”.
Several Penang businesses have commissioned murals which you’ll find both inside their shops/cafes and on the streets. One of my favourite is the “I Want Pau” mural by WK Setor, which was commissioned by the Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop, a famous purveyor of pau (steamed buns) and baked eggs tarts in George Town. The painting shows children reaching out for some of their freshly baked goods and as you can place yourself in the picture it’s up to you whether you deliver them or not!
Some other stand out murals that caught my eye are:
Another iconic mural (not pictured as we saw it in the dark) is The Boat Man by Julia Volchkova on Stewart Lane & Klang Street. Julia is a Russian artist who also has a mural on the Silo Art Trail in Victoria, Australia and has completed several captivating murals in George Town and Balik Pulau, a town in southwest Penang.
Tips for enjoying the street art in Penang
You can pick up a map with the most significant murals marked on them at a tourist information booth or at your hotel, local cafes and shops – which is where we got ours after getting a little lost. You can also print this one if you like to plan in advance.
All the murals are within walking distance of each other but you might want to spread your walking tour over several days to avoid the heat. We structured our day around food (naturally) and ticked off a number of murals while visiting Ming Xiang Tai Pastry, Coffee On The Table, Kebaya Dining Room and the Chew Clan Jetties.
You can also hire a private driver or take a trishaw tour if you want to see a lot of the murals in the quickest time possible.
Where to stay in George Town
There are a couple of beautiful heritage properties in the heart of historic George Town. We stayed in the elegant Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which is a luxury Colonial hotel owned by the same brothers behind Singapore’s iconic Raffles Hotel.
For a more boutique experience check out The Edison, or stay in one of George Town’s most famous bright buildings, The Blue Mansion. For a typical Peranakan experience stay at the elegant restored shophouses at Seven Terraces, or for more budget options you will find a number of hostels in converted shop houses on Love Lane.
Find more tips for your trip to George Town, Penang here.