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.