A mural of two laughing children on a bicycle has visibly faded into the cracks of a wall in George Town, Penang's UNESCO World Heritage Site. Still, its current state has done nothing to deter the throngs of visitors that line up in front of it every day.
Now, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevict blames himself and his artwork for turning the area into a “circus”.
“The street has not been the same as it used to when I first moved here, [a] quiet heritage street with few local residents,” said the artist in an Instagram post.
He goes on to write, “Myself and many others blame my work for Armenian Street being a center of tourist route in Penang.”
Zacharevic’s post includes photographs of the many visitors coming to Armenian Street, posing with the bicycle or imitating the stance of the children he painted. In the photographs the artist shared, the street is noticeably cluttered, with a nearby cafe being torn down.
The oldest part of George Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. Painted in 2012 during the annual George Town Festival, Zacharevic’s mural has become a regular stop for tourists visiting the city.
Armenian Street is notable for the mark that both Chinese and Armenian settlers have left on the area’s appearance. Over time, it has also become known for the George Town Festival, a platform for showcasing Asian art. It brings almost 250,000 attendees to the island annually. The addition of street art like Zacharevic’s has only heightened the area’s artistic significance.
Zacharevic’s other pieces adorn many walls in George Town. Most of them blend paintings with features of Penang, such as roofs and windows. This is a distinct feature of Zacharevic’s art, which aims to combine elements of urban landscapes with the work itself. This was the first of Zacharevic’s outdoor series, which he has continued in cities such as New York, Lisbon, and Norway, amongst others.
He acknowledges that the Instagram-friendly nature of his artworks is in part why the street has attracted so much attention. He has even considered painting over them but does not believe it would make a difference at this point.
George Town’s status as UNESCO heritage site is now precarious. According to Zacharevic, it is being threatened with the removal of its status “due to failure to protect its culture, architecture and the community.”
Street artists like Banksy and Jean-Michel Basquiat have long been renowned for art that has brought life to the streets. But, in Zacharevic's case, it didn't have to come at the expense of a historical locale which has become “culturally fragile."