Where old walls tell you new stories

Where old walls tell you new stories

They offered to hold my bag and let me take a closer look at that street art. However, before I knew it, they had whisked it into the basket of their bicycle and were just about to run off. I gripped the end of the bicycle and saved the loss.” This is just one of the many stories that ran through my head as I stared at the 3D wall art on the walls of Georgetown. Popularly referred to as the ‘Little Children on the Bicycle’, this work of art has been included amongst the top street arts worldwide by travellers and media. 

In Penang, this is just one of the many pieces of creativity. The capital of Penang state in Malaysia is Georgetown, a UNESCO heritage town whose walls have survived centuries and cannot be demolished. However, the state has managed to infuse life into these ageing bricks with colourful street art. These not only whispered the ancient stories but also brought out new ones by way of imagination. The trend of street art gained popularity in the 2012 Georgetown festival. 

The state commissioned a Lithuanian artist — Ernest Zacharevic. Zacharevic designed landmarks on the otherwise ordinary streets. His creative use of existing doors, windows and props transformed the bare walls into photo stops for the visitors. 

My encounter with the ‘Children on the bicycle’ set me on a trail to find the other art pieces by Zacharevic. A parallel lane got me face to face with the ‘Boy on the motorcycle’. The real bike used in this street art was abandoned by a German tourist on his journey from Vietnam to Penang. Zacharevic found it and used it to make this one of the most Instagrammable locations of Penang.

The popularity and appreciation of Zacharevic’s work encouraged many other artists to leave their mark on the Georgetown walls. Louis Gan, a deaf and dumb artist from Penang, is credited with two such landmark arts. The first being the ‘Kids on a swing’ and the second one of ‘Kids playing basketball’. An international artist, Julia Volchkova added her own touch to Penang with her portraits, depicting the diversity of Penang’s population. Her creations – an Indian Boatsman, a Hakka Dancing Girl and Telok Kumbar Fisherman throw light on the multi-cultural history of Penang.

A bustling port in the 1790s, the island of Penang attracted plenty of tradesmen across Asia. Many Indians and Chinese made the isle their home. The British came in and colonised the island for a few centuries. They left after the independence of Penang, but they, along with the Indians and Chinese, influenced many of the prevailing customs of Penang. Following a trail from Armenian street, I discovered the Street of Harmony. Besides the contemporary paintings, I came across four places of worship – a mosque, a Tao temple, an Indian temple and a church – co-existing peacefully and adding to the tale of the vibrant culture of the island. 

The wall art also has your favourite comic characters — a funny Mr Bean riding away on a cycle or a cute minion beckoning you to pose with it. At various turns and corners, the walls also carry social messages for a better future.
What struck me the most is that the Penang street art scene goes beyond the use of paints. It involves the use of interesting material like wrought iron. The Penang state contracted a Kuala Lumpur firm for ‘Marking the Penang’ project. As a part of this, 52 wrought iron installations were created across the state. These installations are actually mini cultural anecdotes. Among these 52 pieces is one that has been designed by the famous luxury shoe maker – Jimmy Choo.
I did not really have to go far in search of these murals. From bus stops to shops, home walls and wells and cafes, they are there everywhere in Georgetown. Take for example, the longest café of Penang — the Kopi C. It connects Lebuah Pantai to Lebuah Victoria and besides enjoying a bite or two, you can also click a picture along their walls. 

Just download one of the many street art tour maps of Penang and walk, ride a bike or hire a trishaw. Create your own story as you stop by each of these fascinating arts, learn the history behind the canvas or the walls it is painted on, follow the various lanes to landmark monuments and discover the colourful walls of Georgetown in Penang. 

(Travel with Ami Bhat on her blog — www.thrillingtravel.in)

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