Street art in Malaysia: a blessing or a curse?

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Aah, Malaysia. Pearly white beaches, crystal clear water. Snorkelling in the company of turtles, strolling through food courts, eating blue rice, smelling the unrivaled stench of durian, and sipping coconut juice. For aquaphobics and art-lovers however, the country has plenty more to offer. One city in particular has become an artsy place hipsters would die for: Georgetown.

Malaysia’s cultural agenda looked great over the past few months. Art Expo Malaysia took place in August, the Langkawi Art Biennale was held in September, and the Georgetown Festival was a success. This last city is the perfect representative for “Little Asia”, a name sometimes given to Malaysia. Georgetown is a mix of all kinds of cultures. Located on the Western island of Penang, it has been home to a Malay community, an Indian community, and a Chinese community for centuries. Because of its unique architectural and cultural townscape, Georgetown has been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

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Street art is what the city has been famous for since years. It started with Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who left his painted mark on the walls of historical Georgetown in 2012. Other artists such as Louis Gan, Simon Tan, and Oceu Apristawijaya have followed. As some of this street art has interactive features, it has been drawing millions of selfie-lovers to the city center.

The government has seized the opportunity to add street art made of steel rod sculptures. It is a collection of 52 2D cartoons made by local cartoonists that explain some of the city’s traditions, fun facts, and language. The company behind it is Sculpture at Work, which won the design idea competition organised by the Penang State Government on 7 September 2009.

Not everyone is equally happy about this trend. The former owner of Soohongry, a chummy cafe that was located in the middle of the hipster hub, explains that nobody ever asked the local residents for their opinion before putting up the street art pieces. He mentions tourists coming down to take pictures with the art pieces and then leaving without spending any money. While rents in the attractive area are soaring, there is hardly any profit to be made and competition is tough. Unfortunately, Soohongry had to close because of these reasons.

What’s your opinion on this issue? Share your ideas in the comment box below.

Pictures © Jasmine Victorina
Note: not all street art pieces shown in this article can still be found on the Georgetown walls.

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