Malaysia’s street art scene is thriving like never before
Street art has had a change in reputation in the past few years. What was once considered vandalism has gone largely mainstream, and street art is now seen as public showpieces and a tourist draw.
From New York City to Buenos Aires and Bangkok, these cities are canvasses for public artwork. In Malaysia too, the trend is growing, attracting local and international talent to cities across the country. The walls of decrepit colonial buildings, ordinary shop-houses and abandoned bus stations are now home to charming paintings of children at play, portraits, scenes of everyday life, fantastic cartoon characters and urban landscapes.
In Penang, Ernest Zacharevic put George Town on the street art map with his work, which uses a mix of painting and installations. The Lithuanian artist was commissioned to do six pieces for the George Town Festival in 2012, following a portraiture piece of his neighbour, a clog maker. His idyllic paintings – children on a bicycle, boy on a motorbike, a rickshaw driver – are big draws for camera-toting tourists. Subsequently, the city's wall paintings and Zacharevic shot to fame.
Since then, street art has flourished elsewhere in the country. In the former mining city of Ipoh, art teacher Eric Lai went on a creative streak, furnishing walls with his Malaysian-themed art featuring cultural dances and scenes of children playing traditional games. Zacharevic has also left his mark in the city's downtown with seven commissioned pieces for a local coffee-shop chain.
Down south in Johor Bahru, local artists like Akeem, Iqbal Hareez Osman and Pauline See have contributed to the city's street art scene. See got her first taste of outdoor art when she drew with a pencil her signature dreamlike landscape on a dilapidated wall along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in 2013.
Thanks to its popularity, visibility and accessibility, government agencies and corporations are using street art as a means of reaching out to the public. In the KUL Sign Festival, which was initiated in 2010, local artists were invited by the city council to brighten up the drab grey walls along the Klang River in a beautification exercise. Malaysia’s national oil and gas company, Petronas, used street art as the main thrust of its National Day campaign, #tanahairku, to promote social togetherness to young people.
The 2014 #tanahairku campaign, which was coordinated by Bumblebee Consultancy, involved six locations and 10 artists in Kuala Lumpur. The Village and the City piece by Kenji Chai and Cloak was certified the biggest mural on a building by the Malaysian Book of Records. The painting Brave of a boy in a tiger hat along Jalan Raja Chulan by Anokayer and Yumz is equally eye-catching. The Petronas campaign has since extended to other cities in Malaysia, including Johor Bahru and Kuching in Sarawak.
Street art has not spared the neighbouring city of Shah Alam either. An hour's drive from the Kuala Lumpur city centre, a portion of Section 2 has been carved out for public art. Called Laman Seni 7, it was set up by the council to highlight local talent, spruce up the township's back alleys and entice tourists. The alfresco art gallery has attracted talents such as Mohd Amin Hadarih, whose symbolic piece on orangutans won the 3D painting award, and art collective Bawang Studio and their nostalgic piece The Courtyard.
Back in Penang, the street art scene is still going strong. In 2014, George Town played host to the country's first street art festival called Urban XChange, which featured works by local and international artists. The festival has since grown in strength to include installations, sculptures and sound in its programme. In 2017, Urban Xchange will take place in Kuala Lumpur in a collaboration with the country's longest-running creative arts festival, Urbanscapes.