Walking a Street of Art


Butterworth’s murals tell the tale of its glory days – and those to come.

Street art turns public spaces into colourful and vibrant places of interest. Penang has felt its effects since Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic left his mark on the walls of George Town in 2012. His work, “Little Children on a Bicycle”, was featured in The Guardian as one of the best pieces in the world, and George Town was recently listed by Lonely Planet as the only Asian destination that offers street art as one of its attractions.

This phenomenon has since spread across the state to townships such as Balik Pulau and Butterworth. For the latter, street art “began” in 2015 with the Urban Exchange (UX) Festival; large-scale murals were painted by international street artists on walls within Butterworth town, and later in 2016 Thomas Powell, a British artist, was commissioned to paint a few murals on the ruined structures of a derelict building at Bagan Luar – a project funded by Think City in conjunction with Butterworth Fringe Festival (BFF) 2016.

Last year, Think City collaborated with a private KL-based art gallery, ZART Gallery (led by Penang-born architect Zaini Zainul), in art-led place-making project Butterworth Art Walk (BAW), which attempts to integrate street art into heritage conservation.

The Story behind the Walk

In the early evening, teens come on their motorbikes and take the walk, sit down, chit chat and have a drink. They hang out there. There are not many places in Butterworth for young people to hang out unless they go to cafes, but that incurs expenses. The art walk is a free public place.

Connecting Lorong Bagan Luar 1, Lorong Bagan Luar 2 and Lorong Bagan Luar 3 (beginning from Lodge 18 Hotel until the Sri Sithi Vinayagar Temple), BAW aims to rejuvenate the back alleys of Butterworth with colourful and insightful murals. With a theme related to Butterworth’s past, BAW celebrates local identity and helps build a sense of community pride.

Daniel Lee from Think City explains that the overall intention is to connect the few existing art spaces in the neighbourhood through creative place-making projects. “We have an MoU with the Municipal Council of Seberang Perai (MPSP) for a project called ‘Butterworth Baharu’. We have plans to revitalise four places: the site of Penang Sentral, Prai River, the old town and Pantai Bersih.

“We want to use art as a tool to give more life to the town; we already have some here, like those commissioned for BFF, Powell’s murals and those done by Lokalhouz (an emerging art space supported by Think City), but they are scattered. We are trying to connect those sites; we initiated this art walk to tell the stories of Butterworth in a simple and fun way,” Lee says.

Besides funding the project, Think City’s team works closely with project leader Zaini during each phase of the project (there are a total of three phases), actively participating in the research, planning and design. Before commencing work on-site, all designs require Think City’s endorsement; the main considerations are the budget and the subjects and content. Once the design is confirmed, Zaini leads a selected team of artists to start creating art on-site. “I want the public to feel and be impressed, as though they are walking through an art gallery. Also, we hope to create a new public space that the local community can use and be proud of,” says Zaini.

The second phase has 10 murals showing the community’s earlier reliance on the sea and the port.

Among the artists involved – including some from KL’s artist-based Kasturi Studio – are Syazwan Jalil, Syamsul Addenno, Nazmi Jamaruddin, Suhaimi Ali, Hadi Ramli, Safuan Nasiar and Amir Andhar, as well as Penang-based Shahidan Muhammad and Azmi Hussein.

Each phase involves works on different subjects; the first phase includes 11 murals and two sculptures depicting the discovery of Butterworth and its agriculture-based society. The second phase wrapped up last July with four sculptures and 10 murals showing the community’s earlier reliance on the sea and the port. The last phase, which showcases the trains and industries in Butterworth, will start after BFF in August.

Zaini and his team encountered some interesting challenges along the way: “We had to come up with suitable content and design. The limited budget forced us to be extra creative to ensure the artwork is properly done. We also encountered logistical challenges because some of the art needed to be drawn high up on a wall.” At 14ft off the ground, with help from MPSP who lent the group a sky lift, they managed to get things done.

Lee explains, “The artwork needed to tie in with the stories of Butterworth, but we allowed for a creative way to present them – such as the colourful elephants and Lego ferry. So far, the locals as well as the local authority have not disagreed with the artwork; they like it as it is neither degrading nor controversial.”

Taking Ownership of Our Alleys

Leading the project from the start, Zaini witnessed how art brings people and the community together. “Before BAW, the alley was scary and no one wanted to walk through that area. Today, the artwork has brought joy to the alley; the shopkeepers are happy to see new crowds which generate spillover to their businesses.”

“In the early evening, teens come on their motorbikes and take the walk, sit down, chit chat and have a drink,” Lee observes. “They hang out there. There are not many places in Butterworth for young people to hang out unless they go to cafes, but that incurs expenses. The art walk is a free public place.

“Our aim is to attract and retain locals. We also aim to attract external visitors to come visit, stay and to spend. Next is to see the potential of the place and invest – that’s the whole idea of revitalising the place. Art is just one way, but not the only way. People come to look at the art, but they will not stay. They come to take pictures and they leave. We need to inject commercials; however, it takes a bit longer to convince people to come to invest.”

It’s no easy job maintaining the art walk: “Furniture, trash bins and lighting installed at the site have gone missing,” Zaini says. “As with any public domain, some rowdy crowds use the site as their hang out place. Thus, safety for kids and visitors is of concern. A good maintenance programme should be implemented to ensure a lasting, wonderful experience at the art walk.”

Lee explains, “We set up a small fund for maintenance. For now, we will be taking care of it, but later we might hand over the task of maintaining the walk to the MPSP or whoever is suitable.” On top of that, with the support and agreement of the MPSP, the team is planning to pedestrianise the walk.

While the public is still debating the commissioning and the overwhelming movement of street art in Penang, BAW shows that art can serve beyond aesthetics. The murals and installations take pedestrians back to the old days of Butterworth, and play a part in city-making.

Nevertheless, as with many other placemaking projects, the process of maintaining the positive impacts is always far more challenging than the process of initiation or construction. It is for the local community to take pride – and care – of their public spaces.

Nicole Chang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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