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Cora Knoblauch
Street Art in George Town

Cora Knoblauch with Zacharevic's work.
Cora Knoblauch with Zacharevic's work. | Photo (detail): © Cora Knoblauch

George Town on the Malaysian island of Penang is a tourist magnet. Thanks to Instagram, the 3-D street art in the city by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic is famous. But not all artists are happy about it.

By Cora Knoblauch

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Two children are on a bicycle: the little boy is perched on the luggage rack, clinging shouting, to his big sister, who is obviously having a lot of fun. The picture on a house wall in George Town, on the Malaysian island of Penang, is a tourist magnet. The special thing about it is that the bike is real, while the children are painted almost photo-realistically on the mottled wall behind it: 3-D street art. The work of art is one of the most reproduced and photographed street art works in George Town. And it’s made the little Asian island famous for its street art. But not all artists are happy about it.

“Over there you see the most famous mural by Ernest Zacharevic, kids on a bike. Across the street is an iron tree with a marble figure. Next to that are also two installations by other artists, and there’s a small sculpture on the roof of the house. But the people don’t even see them. They just come to take pictures of the Zacharevic picture. The media train people to see certain things. Whatever isn’t mentioned practically doesn’t exist.”

“With his art, Ernest has displaced the sights in George Town.”

Bibichun, in his mid-thirties, is a street artist from Malaysia who has lived in George Town on Penang Island for five years. When Bibichun came to George Town, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic had just completed several street art works in the old town for an art festival. Zacharevic had tried something new: he integrated real objects like a bicycle into his photo-realistic, painted murals. Tourists sit on the bike or pose next to it and become part of the scene. Thanks to Instagram and clever city marketing, this work of art became so famous within just a few months that George Town is not only known today as a Sino-British colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, but as THE city of street art in Southeast Asia. Zacharevic became the superstar of the scene.

“With his art, Ernest has displaced the sights in George Town. A street over from here there’s a famous temple, several hundred years old. It was once THE landmark of George Town. Directly across from it, Zacharevic painted his picture of a boy balancing on a chair on the wall. Younger people come here to photograph the boy on the chair. They don’t know the temple at all.”
  • Cora Knoblauch posing with “Boy on Motorcycle” to become part of the scene. Photo (detail): © Cora Knoblauch
    Cora Knoblauch posing with “Boy on Motorcycle” to become part of the scene.
  • “Kids on Bicycle” made Ernest Zacharevic famous. Photo (detail): © Cora Knoblauch
    “Kids on Bicycle” made Ernest Zacharevic famous.
  • For tourists Zacharevic's street art is a popular scene on instagram. Photo (detail): © Cora Knoblauch
    For tourists Zacharevic's street art is a popular scene on instagram.
  • Street artist Bibichun in front of his work. It’s much easier for foreign artists to get commissions in Malaysia, he says. Photo (detail): © Cora Knoblauch
    Street artist Bibichun in front of his work. It’s much easier for foreign artists to get commissions in Malaysia, he says.
Bibichun knows Zacharevic well; the street art scene in George Town is small and international. Although Zacharevic moved back to Lithuania, he kept his studio in George Town. The fact that the Lithuanian artist receives so much attention for his photogenic works doesn’t bother Bibichun on principle. But getting jobs in Malaysia is much easier for foreign artists, says Bibichun. To him it’s a form of post-colonialism:

“Only western art history and Western art movements are actually taught at art academies in Asia. The art market is dominated by the West. Whitewashing – all that is an issue.”

Street art only survives on Instagram and on the tourists’ smartphones

Bibichun makes his living from commissioned works. His non-commissioned street art usually lasts only a few weeks, sometimes only days. Then his pictures are painted over by the city, mostly because they violate censorship laws.

“There is a Malaysian cartoonist who is always expressing criticism of the government in his work. When he had an exhibition here in Penang last year, hooligans stormed the gallery, destroying his pictures and beating him up. He had to be hospitalised. So I painted a poster with a picture of this cartoonist, his mouth and body wrapped up and tied with the banner of the then governing party. The poster hung in a small alley where many street artists work. It managed to survive almost half a year before it was sprayed over.”

It doesn’t bother him that his provocative and censorship-prone pictures only exist on his smartphone. Street art, says Bibichun, doesn’t belong to the artist or a gallery owner. In a sense, it belongs to no one and everyone:

“Whether my art survives on the street doesn’t interest me. I put the pictures out there and let them go.”

Even Zacharevic’s children on the bike are fading. The tropical, humid climate of Malaysia makes the art and the walls mouldy. If George Town doesn’t invest more in preserving its street art, some pictures will only survive on Instagram and on the tourists’ smartphones.

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