Fox News’ Scott Heidler on Truck Art

As his last report from Pakistan, Fox News correspondent Scott Heidler submits a story on truck art, which centers around a visit to a workshop near Rawalpindi. The piece is striking in how much Heidler uses the “jingle truck” to describe the art. I’ve awkward tour of Jinnah Market with a very confused Greta Van Susteren.

It bears mentioning that the interior of the truck is not just “pimped” in the same manner of the exterior. While a range of craftsmen will be involved in the exterior design and frame restoration, the decorations inside the cab are much different and usually reflect the personal styles and preferences of the driver.

It is striking that Heidler thinks truck art is “providing a diversion from the day to day realities of everyday life” yet at the same time, the significance is explained relative to US activities in the region, “hauling everything from scrap metal to NATO supplies on their way to Afghanistan”. In reality, the thriving truck art is remarkable in its own right. In that sense, the piece is typical of media coverage that is not security related. The richness of Pakistani life is not significant in its own right, but only noteworthy because it differs from the stream of stories about militants, drones, and instability.

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India vs. Pakistan: Truck Art Rivalry?

There is a thriving vehicle decoration sector in both countries, but when it comes to their decorated vehicles, Pakistan’s are more vibrant, intricate, and labor intensive. Each part of a Pakistani truck is covered as part of a canvass. Indian vehicles, while colorful, pay less attention to the whole vehicle and focus more on individual elements, which may not be interconnected.

According to one report, Pakistani truck decoration developed to differentiate their vehicles from their neighbor’s. That account differs from most other accounts of the origins of Pakistani truck art, but regardless of its accuracy, it does underscore the divergent styles of vehicle decoration.

Al Jazeera has coverage of a truck repair and decoration workshop somewhere in India.

Note the TATA insignia on Rana, which has no embellishments. In contrast, Pakistani trucks artists craft premade metallic flourishes that adorn the cowling and embellish the Hino or Bedford insignias, the two most common makes of Pakistani trucks.

While Pakistani vehicles are decorated with reflective tape and paint, Indian trucks seems to use more pattern-cut decals, and, in the case of the trucks interior, glossy posters. Both are rare on Pakistani trucks. Indian vehicles seem to have fewer idyllic scenes. Though some of the motifs, such as a peacock, are similar, the entirety of the Indian truck is not used as a canvass, but only selected scenes are painted.

The narrator seems impressed that the Sikh workshop owners have been in business for six years. In Pakistan, the norm is artists who have been working for decades lifetime. While a Pakistani truck will require teams of painters to prepare, as well as a separate source for decoration pieces and additional accessories, from the report it looks like the Indian workshop leaves it up to a couple workers.

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What is “jingle art”?

The term “jingle truck” has become shorthand for decorated, customized Pakistani trucks. According to most reports, American servicemen in Afghanistan coined the term, though other accounts date it to the period of British colonialism. Yet with increasing frequency, “jingle art” not longer appears in quotes or with the mention that it is an “unofficial” label. It has now become an accepted term and appears in official NATO press releases and other media without quotations or caveats. There is a need for a succinct noun to describe vehicular decoration in Pakistan, but there should be a better term. For several reasons, this blog tries to avoid using “jingle art.”

A Pakistani ice cream vendor and his American counterpart. Both announce their presence with a jingle (the Pakistani tune seems fairly standard and mildly infectuous). These are the real jingle carts and trucks, not Pakistani art trucks.

To reduce Pakistani decorated trucks to their sound overlooks much of the art. The part of the vehicle that makes noise is only a small fraction of the decorations, usually attached below the front and rear fender, and sometimes the side. On a dark road at night, the sound of the small metal beads hitting each other may be the only sign of the truck. But the beads represent very little of the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into producing a decorated truck. It is the reflective material and paintings that really standout, alerting oncoming vehicles and attracting admirers.

The US military does not have the best record for cultural sensitivity in naming and is not the best source for neologisms. One of the hallmarks of poor naming is how thanks to Team America, all Arabic speakers (and probably some Dari/Pashto speakers, too) are nicknamed “dirka-dirka”. The Middle East is not a culture rich region and the birthplace of civilization, but the “Sandbox”. (At the same time, the US military is quite familiar with decorated Pakistani vehicles and may be one of the largest sources of income for drivers of embellished trucks. According to this estimate, “over a million dollars in contracts for “Jingle Truck” transportation is spent a month” by the US military.) Of course, “jingle truck” is a much less pejorative label than “sandbox” or “dirka-dirka” but inaccurate nonetheless.

Is there a better term? Eminent truck art scholar Jamal Elias uses “art trucks” instead of “jingle trucks,” which is an acceptable, if imperfect, alternative.

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Taxi Motifs in Islamabad/Rawalpindi: The Origin of R-A-K

taxi2

On the rear of nearly every taxi in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and surrounding areas are decals with the letters R–A-K. The letters are capitalized, printed in a bold font, and sometimes appear with a variation of the Australian or New Zealand flag beneath the A. There are variations on the selection of letters, but RAK is almost as much a symbol of a taxi as its yellow color or the standard make of taxis, the Suzuki FX800. Red and black taxis exist, but these are most easily recognizable by the R-A-K additions.

An R-A-K taxi. Note the USA decals below the bumpers

Almost as inexplicable as the R-A-K sequence are the other decals that appear on taxis. Below the bumper is frequently a British flag, and decals that say “USA,” or “Japan.” The presence of a USA sticker is especially surprising as in a recent Pew survey of Pakistani public opinion only 16% of Pakistanis viewed the US favorably. Only one country had a more unfavorable opinion of the US. According to another poll, Pakistanis view the US as more of a threat than India.

The explanation proffered for design choices is similar between taxi and truck decorations. Most taxi drivers shrug when asked why RAK appears on their taxi and usually suggest that it is just for decorative purposes. Similarly, truck drivers seldom articulate the rationale behind why a flower appears in one panel of their truck and a women or idyllic scene in another.

When decorative styles vary from the norm, there is often an explanation. A taxi driver chose to use the letters UAH instead of RAK in honor of his children, Usman, Asma, and Haroon. Another taxi driver, has changed the R to a P and drives with PAK on his rear to support his country. The same is true for truck art. Unique paintings often commemorate a lost family member.

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