Street artists drawing attention in Malaysia

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 2, 2013

IN DOWNTOWN George Town, Penang, stalls selling T-shirts, fruits and canned drinks are sprouting near the city's newest attractions: wall murals.

Since the street art began popping up on the sides of pre-war shophouses in Georgetown last year, they have been drawing large crowds, turning a quick buck for everyone from the artists who paint them to nearby food vendors and cafes to purveyors of related knick-knacks.

For years, street art was largely underground - hastily created in the middle of the night by anonymous youth who then fled to avoid vandalism charges. Nowadays, artists are painting murals in broad daylight, often paid to do so by owners of the premises or local councillors.

One of them is Mr Louis Gan, 25, a street artist with speech and hearing disabilities, who found fame with his mural in Georgetown of a boy and a girl - his children - laughing gleefully while standing on a swing.

The painting was commissioned by the building's owner, Mr Loo Lye Hock, the owner of a printing firm.

These days, Mr Gan gets at least one order for a wall mural each month. He has painted cafes, including in Kuala Lumpur, and charges about RM80 (S$31) to RM100 per square foot, said Mr Gan Yee Chun, 24, Louis' brother and spokesman.

"We have to reject some projects because there is only so much Louis can do," Mr Gan told The Straits Times recently. "But, we are happy he has found a way to earn his living."

Mr Khor Zew Wey, 30, a street artist known as Bibichun, has painted murals in hotels and is known for his paintings of tapirs on walls around Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

When he first started seven years ago, he got paid RM200 a mural, and split that with another artist. Now, he says, he gets paid between RM6,000 and RM20,000 each time, depending on the size and complexity of the work.

Sometimes, he says, he earns enough to get by for six months without working before the next project comes along. "It is an ideal job as I am not just surviving and the best part is, I don't even have to follow office hours," he told The Straits Times recently.

Artists are not the only ones cashing in.

Tourism authorities have created free walking maps to make it easier for visitors to hunt down murals, some hidden in obscure alleys.

Where tourists go, hawkers follow.

Along Lebuh Ah Quee in George Town, a trader does brisk business selling RM10-for-three notepads and calendars depicting some of the famous wall murals in the heritage zone.

Other cities have caught on to the trend. In Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru, murals are showing up near sidewalks.

In Artisan Roast Coffee, a hip coffee joint in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, an affluent neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur, patrons sip lattes next to eclectic drawings of coffee beans and coffee poured from suspended cups and mugs.

Mr Michael Wilson, 36, the owner of the cafe, said he stumbled upon the idea after chatting with an artist, Mr Azeem Idzham Azaham, who had walked in while the cafe was under construction. Mr Wilson asked him to paint some murals, including a Sarawak native garbed in traditional costume and having a cuppa.

He liked what he saw and hired another one, Ms Sari Sartje, to create more murals in his cafe, such as mugshots of men and women with toothy grins holding coffee mugs. "It adds such character and warmth to something as cold as a concrete wall," Mr Wilson told The Straits Times in an interview recently.

While street art has gone mainstream, some of the works still ruffle feathers.

Recently, Penang-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic - who has also created murals in Singapore - painted a Lego man with a mask and a knife lying in wait for a Chanel-bag toting Lego character coming around the corner in Johor Baru - a reference to the city's notorious crime rate.

The Johor Baru city council, unamused, swiftly whitewashed the wall, but not before it attracted a huge amount of interest. Some Singaporeans even crossed the border specially to see it.

People like the murals because they depict real life, observed Mr Joe Sidek, 55, director of George Town Festival. The annual arts festival had commissioned Mr Zacharevic to create some wall murals last year.

"You don't feel intimidated looking at them as they are not difficult to understand, and that makes such art very accessible to the public," Mr Sidek told The Straits Times recently.

"Most importantly, anyone can appreciate art as they are in public places."

Mr Khor, however, is more critical of the commercialisation of street art, although he admits it helps pay bills. He said gaining commercial success could deter artists from creating more mature work.

He says he is not bothered that his murals are less popular than others'. "I just do what feels right to me at that time."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 2, 2013

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