Have you ever chased an art form that can not be squeezed into an art gallery nor hung on a wall? It is an art form that wobbles along the Pakistani hills and stirs up the dust on Pakistan’s roads. It is one of a kind, and is known as Pakistani truck art.
Truck art is Pimp My Ride avant la lettre. Specialised artists ennoble pick-ups and trucks to art on wheels and taxis, rickshaws, vans and cars are not safe from paint either. In bright colours, complicated patterns and drawings of flora and fauna are hand-painted on the vehicles’ bodywork. This way, images of peacocks, tigers, birds, roses and fairy-like landscapes are displayed next to philosophical words of wisdom, sayings meant to make each other laugh, poetical verses and love messages. “Come with me to my town, my love”, “I wish I were a book you were reading. If you fell asleep and the book would fall on your chest, I would be close to you”, and “If your mother prays for you, it is like a breeze from heaven” are just some striking examples. From the back of the vehicle, the portraits of Pakistani film stars, one’s own sons, sports icons, and -a little bit more patriotic- the president or heroes of the national military would stare at passers-by and colleagues. Sometimes even famous Western faces, the Mona Lisa and Lady Di for instance, are applied. Religious imagery such as the Quran, the Kaaba in Mecca, Islamabad’s Faysal Mosque or Buraq (the Prophet’s winged horse) are mostly added above the cabin.
The embellishments are not limited to painting. Decorating a truck means adding tinsel and stickers as well. Small mirrors are attached to the front and the back of the vehicle, while carved wood adorns the doors and the top. If one does not want to stay behind, one should even add little lights. Because of the tinkling sound of the chains attached to the bumpers, decorated trucks are sometimes called jingle trucks. To complete the picture the interior of the vehicle does the rest of the truck justice with pompoms, silk, satin, with golden and silver thread embroidered fabrics and cushions.
Once upon a time
It would be a lie to say that there is consensus about how truck art came to its existence. During the days of the Raj, the embellishment of horse carriages was common among noblemen. It is said that a bus company was the first to let its buses be decorated by a team of professionals in the 1920s, in an attempt to attract more customers. Truck owners would have followed in these tracks later on.
Another account states it would all have started in the 1940s, when trucks were deployed for long distance transport for the first time. Because illiteracy was widespread in Pakistan back then, every company had its logo painted on its trucks. This became some sort of competition: the more flamboyant a design would be, the more costumers would come knocking on the company’s door. Copying the patterns that were found on camel caravans and ox carts became a tradition in designing these logos, it is said. This went through a major evolution in the 1950s, because of one man: Hajji Hussain, a renowned painter of walls and frescos in palaces. He settled in Karachi and switched to painting carriages and trucks. From then on, more extravagant designs would shine and shimmer on these vehicles, too. From the 1960s on, Pakistan’s economy blossomed. With the transport industry benefitting as a consequence, the sophisticated decoration of trucks reflected the growing wealth of their owners and the rise of a new urban middle class. These truck drivers had made it, notwithstanding their poor descent, and they wanted to show that off by extravagantly adorning their trucks. In addition, decoration was imperative to be able to deal with the strong competition. Pakistani truck art as we know it today was born.
Original and specialised
Despite the uniqueness of every vehicle, truck art reflects Pakistan’s rich culture and society, which is a product of the diversity of ethnic groups living in the country. A well-trained eye can detect the region a certain truck hails from and to which ethnic group its owner belongs, based on the decoration of the vehicle. In Karachi, the main centre for this craft, reflecting tape is highly popular. Quetta and Peshawar are famous for woodwork, while geometrical patterns made of coloured plastic are preferred in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Ornaments made from camel bone however are only used by craftsmen from Sindh. Here, as well as in Punjab, applications of stainless steel in the shape of peacocks are favoured.
For each step in the decoration process, a specialised craftsman is responsible: a whitesmith for the frames made of steel, an electrician for the wiring, a woodworker for carving the wood, a specialist for the upholstery, the embroidery and bead work, and a painter with his assistant for portraits and landscapes. At times even a poet is involved, who is commissioned to write poetic verses. What the owner of the vehicle specifically requests is usually complemented by the craftsmen’s wishes, who are only limited by the extent of their fantasy.
The more the merrier
Depending on the size and demands, decorating one truck easily takes up to ten weeks. An average paint job would cost at least 50.000 rupee, which is about 390 Euro. Add the costs for the metal and wood work and the repair costs, and the total amount will rise to more than 1.500 Euro, a small fortune that equals two year’s wages for an average truck driver in Pakistan (although he is not always the owner of the vehicle, who is the one who will pay in the end). Despite this enormous cost and the remarkable habit of giving a truck a complete make-over every three or four years, many truck owners take their new vehicle to a specialised workshop immediately upon purchase. Indeed, for someone who is more on the road than with his wife and kids, a truck is nothing less than home. It is however about more than just a cure for the monotony and loneliness of the road, or embellishing one’s truck. It is about pride and prestige as well. Plus: the more outstanding the decoration, the more numerous the customers and the more valuable the goods. All in all, Pakistani truck art has become a deeply rooted tradition with a folkloric and cultural meaning.
Despite this enormous cost and the remarkable habit of giving a truck a complete make-over every three or four years, many truck owners take their new vehicle to a specialised workshop immediately upon purchase. Indeed, for someone who is more on the road than with his wife and kids, a truck is nothing less than home. It is however about more than just a cure for the monotony and loneliness of the road, or embellishing one’s truck. It is about pride and prestige as well. Plus: the more outstanding the decoration, the more numerous the customers and the more valuable the goods. All in all, Pakistani truck art has become a deeply rooted tradition with a folkloric and cultural meaning.
A source of inspiration
Truck art has not only drawn the attention of Western anthropologists over the last few years, but inspired and keeps on inspiring Pakistani artists and designers as well. Galleries sell everyday objects decorated with the same patterns, colours and images: lanterns, water jugs, cups, buckets, lamps, boxes and even phones. Fashion designers such as Deepak Perwani and Maheen Khan integrate those same patterns and colours in their designs.
This art form might also serve as a source of inspiration for al.arte readers who are looking for a suitable gift for a friend or loved one. Pakistani truck artist Haider Ali decorated the truck of one of his Indian friends as a gift and a symbol of peace and love. Anyone need more paint?
This post is also available in: Dutch