Of all the popular destinations on the various backpacking routes that loop through Southeast Asia, Penang retains a distinctive vibe.
Unlike its neighboring islands, Penang isn’t known for paradisal beaches and spectacular landscapes. Its main appeal lies instead in the singular atmosphere of Georgetown, Penang’s UNESCO Heritage-listed capital. It’s urban but laid-back, with a feel that’s more hipster-cute than hippie — a refreshing departure from other mainstays on the backpacker circuit. For all that you can do in Penang, there’s not a lot you have to do. It’s a city to relax in. It’s a city to wander.
And one of the best parts of wandering here? The street art!
Like the island itself, Penang’s street art is unique. For one, it’s a little unexpected in a registered historic district like Georgetown’s, sneaking up in corners right alongside the city’s irresistibly colorful old shophouses. Despite being a fairly new addition to Georgetown (its first wave of street art came as recently as 2012, when the island’s municipal council hired Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic to brighten up the city with his murals), the street art is almost unassuming: it really feels like it belongs here, as if it’s been here all along. The effect is a world apart from other cities renowned for their street art — it doesn’t demand attention like Melbourne’s bold laneways; in fact, it hardly evokes the spray-paint origins of traditional graffiti at all. It feels more cute than edgy, and above all, it’s playful.
Ahead, I’ve gathered a list of thirty of Penang’s best pieces of street art. Before we dig in, though, here are a few notes about how I’ve organized them (and how you can find them!):
Unlike my DIY walking tour of Melbourne’s street art, I didn’t make a map for Penang. This is mostly because when we went out looking for street art, maps ready in our iPhones, we ended up doing a lot of looping around and backtracking. I quickly discovered that the best way to do this was to simply explore — in fact, I found most of my favorite pieces during my more aimless walks around the city! Georgetown’s UNESCO Heritage Zone (around which you’ll find most of Penang’s best street art) is confined enough that if you stroll around these areas and keep your eyes out, you’re sure to catch these (and more!).
– With that said, I did try to organize these into four distinct zones with some loose instructions to guide your walk. You can use this guide to look for street art as you’re out and about exploring other Penang attractions in these areas — and if you’d rather find them all in a single go, there are directions for connecting these walks, too! Just realize that since these zones are a little spread out, doing it all is inevitably going to involve some looping back around.
– This list starts with some of Penang’s most-loved pieces on Lebuh Armenian — but my personal favorites are nearer the bottom of the list. These are the pieces I stumbled upon without really trying to. While they might not rank as Georgetown’s most-photographed, they’re bold and impressive. Trust me — these are murals worth looking for!
– If wandering isn’t your thing, I did come across a few helpful maps while preparing this post. This map from The Occasional Traveller is the most thorough I found, also grouped into several distinct zones with very specific directions. If you’d rather indulge your inner cat lady (or man!), this Travel Bugs map is just what you need.
– And on one last note: do keep your eyes out for these wrought-iron installations as you walk around. They’re full of historical facts about the streets of Georgetown. The one pictured below even helped get the answer to a trivia night question back at home!
LEBUH ARMENIAN & CHEW JETTY: THE SHORT & SWEET TOUR
Whether you’re short on time or simply after the most popular (or Insta-worthy!) street art in Penang, Lebuh Armenian is the best place to start. This street is home to many of Georgetown’s most popular pieces, including several by Ernest Zacharevic, the artist who started it all. His pieces tend to incorporate both 2D and interactive 3D elements, which makes them especially popular with tourists — expect to have to wait your turn for photos! As Lebuh Armenian is the touristy heart of Georgetown, you’ll also find a lot more than street art here, from shopping to cafes to museums (including two of my favorites!). These are ordered roughly from the inner end of Lebuh Armenian (where it curves off Lebuh Carnarvon), heading toward the water. You’ll catch most of these pieces on your left walking in this direction.
1. LION DANCE
A lot of Penang’s street art revolves around its cultural heritage. This one is a nod to a traditional Chinese dance performed for good luck — we saw it during Penang’s Chinese New Year!
2. LITTLE GIRLS
Part of Penang’s street art magic comes from stumbling across cute little surprises like this piece.
3. TEACH YOU SPEAK HOKKIEN / 4. MARGE SIMPSON
This big purple mural is hard to miss. You can find Marge Simpson (which used to be a couple of minions!) on the other end of the same little parking lot.
5. I CAN HELP CATCH RATS
Penang’s street art scene is heavy on the cats — and a for a good reason, as it turns out! This piece is part of the 101 Lost Kittens Project, created by the Artists for Stray Animals to encourage awareness about strays. Twelve pieces were featured in the campaign, including most of the cats you’ll find here.
6. LITTLE CHILDREN ON A BICYCLE
Zacharevic’s most famous piece is probably the most photographed in Penang. It’s the obligatory “I was in Georgetown” picture — expect a crowd!
Apparently this giant cat’s name is Skippy, and he’s the star of the 101 Lost Kittens Project. Don’t forget to take a look around the corner…
8. SPEECH BUBBLE KITTEN
You’ll find this one tucked behind a bicycle rental stall.
9. LOVE ME LIKE YOUR FORTUNE CAT
Penang: the destination for cat-lovers everywhere!
10. I WANT BAO
You’ll find this by the Ming Xiang Tai Pastry Shop. Of the more interactive pieces, this has to be my favorite — mostly because during my time in Penang, I suffered (by which I mean, enjoyed!) a minor addiction to bao. On a very serious little side note here: don’t miss these sweet little buns! There’s a particularly amazing veggie version at the Lebuh Kimberley hawker court — one of my two favorite places to eat in Georgetown. (The other? Little India!)
11. AMAH AND ASOON
I dare you not to smile! It’s also worth noting that Chow Jetty was home to another famous Zacharevic piece of two boys in a boat. You might hear about it, but don’t look too hard — sadly, it no longer exists. Still, the Chinese jetties are very much worth exploring in their own right!
LEBUH GAT CHULIA & LEBUH AH QUEE: MORE MUST-SEES & PHOTO OPS
Keep walking here for more of Penang’s most popular interactive pieces, and for some ever-popular minions. If you’re continuing from Lebuh Armenian, you’ll want to take a left onto Pengkalan Weld (that’s a right if you’re leaving from Chow Jetty) and another left on Lebuh Gat Chulia.
12. BROTHER AND SISTER ON A SWING
While it’s like Zacharevic’s art in spirit, this popular mural is actually by local Penang-born artist Louis Gan. You’ll find this one in a small alley to your right shortly after turning onto Pengkalan Weld.
13. CHINESE MINION / 14. MAN WITH MALAYSIAN FLAG
This cute minion is directly across from the swing mural pictured above. To continue on to the man with the Malaysian flag and the rest of the street art on Lebuh Ah Quee, continue down Lebuh Gat Chulia until you reach Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street). Turn left, and then take the first right onto Ah Quee.
15. BOY ON BIKE
This is another of Zacharevic’s popular pieces, painted onto the door of an old shophouse. You’ll find it on your right not far past the man with the flag.
16. LITTLE BOY WITH PET DINOSAUR
This Zacharevic piece is directly next to the boy on the motorbike pictured above. Apparently, the dinosaur had begun to wear away but was restored earlier this year — yay!
17. MINION WITH FIRE HYDRANT
Because Penang never tires of minions. (Does anyone?) This one’s on your left just a little farther down Ah Quee.
LEBUH CHULIA & SURROUNDS: IN THE HEART OF THE BACKPACKING DISTRICT
If you’re staying in a hostel, there’s a good chance you’re in the vicinity of Lebuh Chulia and Love Lane — and you don’t have to go far to find good street art! If you’re doing this as one big walk from the previous section, continue from the Chinese minion to the end of Ah Quee. Turn right onto Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and then left onto Lebuh Chulia. You’ll find the first of these pieces at Chulia Mansion.
18. GIRL WITH BIRDS IN HER HAIR
This piece is by Australian artist Vexta, who took part in Penang’s 2014 street art festival Urban Xchange. Many of my own favorites — including this one! — had their origins in this festival.
19. GIRL WITH TURTLE
This magical piece is a collaboration between Zacharevic and Argentinian artist Martin Ron. It’s just on the opposite side of Chulia Hotel.
20. AWAITING TRISHAW PEDDLER
If you continue to the end of Chulia and take a right onto Lebuh Penang, you’ll come across Zacharevic’s Trishaw Peddler – his biggest piece, as far as size goes.
21. BEARDED MAN ARCHWAY
Backtrack just a bit from the above trishaw peddler mural and take your first left onto Jalan Muntri. Look for the small Chinese temple and cat cafe — this one should be just across the street. It’s by London-based artist Gabriel Pitcher.
22. INDIAN BOATMAN
This towering piece is on the narrow street just behind Love Lane.
LEBUH PANTAI (BEACH STREET) & LEBUH CANNON: BIG & BOLD
Many of these are in the same vein as the Chulia Mansion murals above — the girl with the birds in her hair and the girl with the turtle. These are big, bold and — in my humble opinion! — among Penang’s most beautiful pieces of street art. Stroll down Lebuh Pantai from the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower; this will make a good walk back toward Lebuh Armenian if you’re exploring Fort Cannon, strolling the Esplanade along the water or coming from the ferry. If you’re continuing this as one big walk, I’d keep following Jalan Muntri to Jalan Madjid Kapitan Keling. Take a left, following the street to its end to take a right onto Lebuh Light. From here you’ll see the big clock tower at the roundabout, where you can turn right onto Lebuh Pantai.
23. TROMBONE PLAYER
This piece is located inside the Logan Heritage Building. It’s by Gabriel Pitcher, the same artist responsible for the Bearded Man Archway.
24. WOMAN WITH MONKEY
I can’t say why exactly, but this just might be my very favorite. This and the boat below both came out of the 2014 Urban Xchange street art festival. You’ll find this in a parking lot to your right above four blocks past the Logan Heritage Building.
This surreal piece is right across from the woman and monkey above.
Another Urban Xchange piece, this one’s by Malaysian artist Bibichun. To find it, continue down Beach Street, crossing back over Chulia, Armenian and Acheh. Take a right onto Lebuh Toh Aka to catch this (and others!) as you loop back to the heart of Georgetown’s UNESCO Heritage Zone.
27. OSCAR THE GROUCH
This piece, just to the right of “Security,” is also by Bibichun.
28. CAT IN TIRE / 29. REACHING UP
At the end of this street, you’ll want to take a right to continue on Toh Aka. You’ll pass Aceh Street Mosque on your left as you continue onto Cannon. These and the next piece are all in the vicinity of the Koo Kongsi Temple — which, you’ll notice, is on Lebuh Armenian — back to where this whole guide started! You’ll find the cat outside of a pet-themed gift shop, while “Reaching Up” is another of Zacharevic’s works.
30. CHINESE MYTHOLOGY
Last but not least: you should be able to find this piece depicting Chinese mythology just outside Koo Kongsi Temple.
This post is sponsored by the amazing Georgetown hostel House of Journey. While I’m doing some work in exchange for accomodation here (an opportunity available to all guests at House of Journey), all opinions are strictly my own — I loved it so much when I arrived that I decided to stick around for a few weeks! If you’re looking for a hostel in Georgetown, I highly recommend House of Journey. You can make a booking through Hostelworld.