Steel rod artwork, George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Walking along the street in George Town, a piece of art catches my eye. Made from steel rods, it creates a cartoon against a wall, the contrast of black and white jumping out towards me amongst all the colour of this vibrant Malaysian city.
I think I notice this piece because of what it shows – a young tourist with a backpack arriving at a hostel. It looks a bit like how I have looked many times over the years (admittedly, back when I had more hair). You can see what it looks like in this photo:
What is this steel rod artwork?
I’m intrigued and set out to learn more. What I discover is that there are more of them.
In fact, there are 52 of them spread around the historic part of George Town, here in Penang.
It all started with a competition in 2009. The local authorities asked artists to pitch ideas for how they could decorate the city. Of the ideas, the best came from a group called Sculpture at Work, which won the commission under the creative direction of local artist Tang Mu Kian.
They suggested creating this series of caricatures made from steel rods, that told the stories of the streets in a local voice.
It was not purely an artistic piece based on visual appeal. It was also a homage to the history of George Town.
After all, the centre of the city is a World Heritage Site and there is centuries of heritage here to be celebrated.
Each of the 52 steel rod artworks reflects a part of this heritage – the communities, the people, the food, the cultural quirks. And it tells them with the wit and humour that are so appropriate for the cartoonish style of the pieces.
The location of the artworks were carefully chosen and the content they show is directly related to that spot.
It could be the street or the area they are in.
Have a look at this one, for example, which has been named ‘The Cheating Husband’. It’s in a place called Love Lane and shows a wealthy businessman hanging out of the window of his mistress.
Then there’s this one called ‘Untrained Parakeet’ in the Little India part of George Town. It tells the story of early astrologers from South India who used green parakeets to read the future.
Some of the sculptures reflect the stories of the particular buildings they are on.
For instance, ‘Escape’ shows a rope coming out of a window of a building on Lebuh Acheh that used to be a prison.
And ‘High Counter’ is on the side of a pawnshop, where the counters are much higher for security reasons.
For a foreign tourist like me, I find them cute and amusing. For locals, there’s a whole other layer of humour within the art.
There are jokes in the expressions used and the objects added to the scenes that only make sense if you understand the culture of the city.
And then there’s the artwork ‘Kopi o Kau!’ where the two worlds mix. A tourist asks for a fancy type of espresso coffee and the waitress immediately translates it into Kopu-O-Kau, which just means black coffee.
I feel like this piece bridges the divide between the international visitors who view the art and the locals who appreciate it.
As I said, there are 52 of them and many you will see without trying as you wander the streets of George Town and explore. Others you may want to make a bit of effort to find. To help you, I have put them all onto this map so you can see where they are.
If you’re using your smartphone, just click on the icon in the top right to open the map in your Google Maps app and all of the markers will load up.
Then, as you walk around, you can see whether you’re close to something significant and you can go and have a look at it.
You’ll notice that I have also included other artworks, heritage sites, and some food recommendations on the map.
The steel rod caricatures were the start of something bigger. They began an art movement that has now become one of the things that George Town is famous for.
Aside from the history, tourists have come to Penang for years for the food scene. Now they also come for the art.
The cartoons by Sculpture at Work are everywhere and it is part of the artistic scene here. But so are dozens of other pieces of street art painted on the walls, incorporating parts of old buildings and other cultural relics.
Some of these pieces have been commissioned or directly supported by the local authorities. Others have popped up organically but are still embraced.
I would love George Town without them – the bustling atmosphere filled with history and smells of cooking, with so many streets full of new things to discover. But these artworks add a whole new level of discovery to enjoy.
There are also great tours that will show you the history and the culture. If that's what you're after, I would recommend one of these three options:
A good cheap and comfortable option is one of the ZEN Rooms hotels (there are a few in the city).
For a boutique heritage hotel, I would suggest Cheong Fatt Tze - The Blue Mansion.
And for the ultimate splurge, you can't go past the gorgeous Macalister Mansion.