PUBLIC art in Penang, while popular with tourists, can get really hot with artists.
A mural in Ah Quee Street recently became an embattled piece when two artists could not agree on its message.
A graffiti artist from Kuala Lumpur, who goes by the name Cloakwork, created the mural which depicts burning cigarettes poking into a wall next to a person with gloomy eyes wearing a gas mask.
The mural carried the message, “Only you can stop air pollution”.
But a Penang artist, known as Bibichun, could not agree with the message and drew a long, red expletive about the excrement of bulls under it.
George Town Festival director Joe Sidek got wind of it and made the two of them talk it out.
“Bibichun felt a need to make a statement. I asked him to talk about it with Cloakwork,” Joe said in an interview.
Following the exchange, the issue was resolved with a grey puff of smoke covering Bibichun’s profanity and the original mural’s message.
But evidence of this conflict of artistic expression may not last long because Joe said the authorities are thinking of removing the mural.
“That’s the hard part about public art in Penang. People embrace art here, but they react when they find it objectionable.
“There are also many by-laws and guidelines for public art.
“We are monitoring the mural to decide if we should remove it,” he added.
In a phone interview, Bibichun admitted that he greyed out his addition and also the original message.
“Cloakwork and I exchanged emails about it. He had hoped that I would restore it, while I couldn’t agree with cigarettes being a notable source of air pollution. So, the middle way was to erase both.
“Don’t get me wrong. I hope Penang can be the first state in the world to ban all tobacco products, but for health reasons.
“I commend Cloakwork for taking the initiative to promote no smoking. But, I think outsiders played an influence in the message written on the mural,” he said.
Cloakwork, who is now in Japan on a graffiti project, replied by email that all is cool with him.
“Bibichun is my friend. I knew him long time ago. Maybe recently he is a bit playful, but if I drop by Penang again, I’ll touch up my artwork,” he said.
He also revealed that the mural was to raise awareness about global climate change by using road safety materials.
The burning cigarettes on the wall are made with flexible road posts.
“Road safety objects are interesting as they are intended to catch people’s attention.
“Because the flexible posts look like cigarettes, I used them. But, I never emphasised that air pollution is mainly caused by smoking,” Cloakwork added.
He named his mural ‘Burning’ and it was done in July for George Town Festival 2016.
It is beside the ‘Boy on a Bike’ mural by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.
Penang is one of the earliest states to make it big with murals. Most of Penang’s street art pieces have colourful stories of being vandalised, changed or destroyed.
The sawn-off motorcycle in Zacharevic’s mural had frequently been the target of scrap metal scavengers while the ‘Children on a Bicycle’ mural in Armenian Street had been splashed with dhal curry, defaced and spray-painted yellow.
Cunning entrepreneurs had also pasted stickers of their product brands on the bicycle.
Both local authorities and artists have helped to restore them.
At Chew Jetty, artist Simon Tan had to whitewash his ‘Grandma and Grandpa’ mural in 2013 about a month after completing it because jetty residents complained that tourists and art lovers were cramming their boardwalk to take pictures with the mural.
Only bits of paint now remains of Zacharevic’s ‘Children in a Boat’ mural at Chew Jetty.
There had been rumours that vandals used paint remover on it, though the jetty residents had said that the paint could not survive sea spray.