Street art and architecture of Penang, Malaysia

Penang is a peculiar city.

Sitting on its own island of the same name off the northwest coast of Malaysia, Penang has a patchwork history and culture.

It owes much of its melting pot personality to its location, not within Malaysia, but at the western terminus of the the Straits of Malacca, one of the most active and important trading corners of the world.

Penang became a British colony late in the 18th century as one of the first establishments of what is often referred to as the “second British Empire” after losing much of its North American presence (fact credits to the Penang State Museum), and served the purpose of checking the growing Dutch influence in Southeast Asia.

Being a major hub of arms and trade for the British Empire turned Penang into an ever important city of transit for people and goods.  Many people stayed, and their relatives never left. As a result, Penang today is a great collage of the different cultures that have come under British influence at one point or another.  Over the course of the last 200+ years many groups have come to Penang, the largest being southern Indian Muslims and Chinese businessmen.  Penang today reflects this past, many cultures still present,  but the dominant ones being Malay, Indian, and Chinese.

In 2008, Penang alongside the similar city of Malacca to the south, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique collection of architecture and cultures unlike anywhere else in the region or world.

As part of the celebrations that functioned around Penang’s introduction to the UNESCO World Heritage Club, the city commissioned a number of street artists to decorate unadorned corners, walls and blank facades peppering the interior of the downtown core.  The project eventually took a life of its own, and Penang is now known for its street art in addition to all of the things that initially merited its inclusion to the prestigious UNESCO list.

Many tourists are now unaware of the reason behind the reason for Penang’s first cultural accolades, but that is unimportant, as the beautiful street art has simply given the city another reason to champion itself as one of the gems of Southeast Asia.

Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacaharevic was the first commissioned artist to start Penang's wave of street art. His creation "kids on a bicycle" is still the most famous of Penang's street art installations.
Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacaharevic was the first commissioned artist to start Penang’s wave of street art. His creation “kids on a bicycle” is still the most famous of Penang’s street art installations.


Other works by Zacharevic
Other works by Zacharevic


Sometimes the intention of the art is to agitate because of its randomness

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Most people took this photo....
Most people took this photo….
....Not realizing that this was the full canvas
….Not realizing that this was the full canvas.

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In addition to the street art, the city of Penang commissioned a series of wrought-iron art pieces to be placed throughout the city at points of historical or cultural significance, sharing their importance in an often humorous way. These installations are known as “Marking Georgetown” (Georgetown is the British name of the old capitol core of Penang… ‘Penang’ also being the name of the island and state).

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AND in addition to both the wrought-iron sculptures and street art, there is the architecture, one of the key things that warranted Penang’s UNESCO status in the first place. I admit I haven’t explored enough of the island’s architectural heritage yet (even though I’ve been here close to a week already), but as you might expect, it is as eclectic and diverse as the cultures that inhabit this charming city.

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So I’ll admit my architecture photos aren’t quite up to par with my street art and wrought-iron ones. Guess I’ll just have to do a little more exploring. What a shame.

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