Join a ScandAsia reporter for an art hunt in historic Georgetown. Ever since Penang’s Municipal County started a collaboration with a Lithuanian artist, Georgetown’s street art have been booming and attracting tourists. The thought of street art as nothing but a tourist trap made the author skeptical at first. But Georgetown isn’t abundant with activities and there is nothing like a good treasure hunt.
After one day in Georgetown I was fed up by the omnipresent street-artish murals. My hostel featured a quite beautiful painting and at first glance it seemed to bring the old idyllic streets a twist. It was picturing a old man standing with an oar in the stern of a wooden boat. The dim paint were beautifully melting into the once white house facade that had slowly grown grey like any other white wall in a tropic climate.
It did not take long, however, before a darker side of the painting was revealed. It was causing constant traffic jam and honking of horns. Tourists in selfie-euphoria were putting their lives at risk when they absently laid down in the middle of the road in front of Go-Pro cameras. It was too much, this was not street art, just a commercial move from the local government to create a tourist trap. No better or less hazardous than a billboard with semi-naked models next to a highway.
I have always defined street art as something you did not need permission to make and mostly I have connected it with rebellion against “the system”, like a critic remark to the society we live in. What they have in Penang is none of that. It is made on the local governments initiative. It is pretty and polite and just to damn photogenic.
Trying desperately to get lost
But I softened up. There is not that much to do in Georgetown and after walking from corner to corner, tasting the most incredible Chinese, Malay and Indian street food, a treasure hunt for the so called street art seemed unexpectedly edible. So I challenged my negativity and went to the streets armed with an alluring hand drawn map, that could sort of have looked like a pirates map if I burned the corners.
Walking through the small streets with a purpose felt nice. Even though I started my walking in the sweltering afternoon it was easy to forget that sweat was oozing out of every pore in my body and that the risk of catching skin-cancer was accelerating. Old painted shop windows and small quirky art pieces were suddenly standing out, helped into focus by the determination to find beauty.
But I quickly got concerned. Maybe this was too easy. You basically just had to follow the clusters of tourist with stick- or handheld cameras. Suddenly the only fun was photographing people photographing each other, a little to meta to be real fun and part of finding a treasure is that you are the only one finding it. Imagine entering Ali Baba’s cave and find the passengers from two large cruise ships dancing around. I decided to look the map to find the most remote artworks.
Appreciate the aesthetics!
Getting there was probably the best part. Constantly finding un-mapped art pieces and walking around in backyards of auto-mechanics. Which is why I can only recommend to choose the worst map you can find. The more confusing the better. The search then quickly becomes an obvious reminder that it is not always the goal but often the journey itself that is most memorable.
Even in the more remote areas, it can difficult to take a photo without feeling like you are stealing someone else’s holiday photo. But who cares. Not only do the paintings compliment the buildings they also sort of make the streets into a museum, showing you of what used to be here and what’s still here but may soon be gone. Like the painting of an old bicycle-taxi “trishaw” driver resting under an umbrella mounted on the bike. Like a cheesy metaphor the mural slowly crumbles away on the old facade, like the impermanence of the culture it portrays.