New York Times on Truck Art: fascinating quality and surrealistic detail

I’m resuming blogging after an extended hiatus by commenting on an article that was published earlier this month in the US paper of record, the New York Times. For several reasons, I think this is the best coverage I’ve ever read about truck art in a popular publication.

First, the author consults the major names in the truck art world, Durriya Kazi and Jamal Elias. Of these two, Elias has published more on the topic and in several scholarly journals. I’ve learned alot from reading him and its great to see him referenced. Any author is just scratching the surface without his insight.

Second, the article addresses one of the questions I’ve long had about truck art: what is the economic benefit from decorating a vehicle? With buses, the motive is clear. A better decorated bus will attract more passengers and make more money. But there is not an obvious incentive to decorate a truck, because most trucks are hired through middlemen, sight unseen. A better decorated truck will not bring in any more business. But, as the article points out, more decorations will make the truck more desirable for drivers, who can choose between vehicles. So with more decoration, truck owners get better truck drivers.

Third, the author visits some of the key truck art hubs in the country. Typically, journalists will visit the workshop in Rawalpindi, Lahore, or possibly Karachi. Parchman deserves a Pulitzer for visiting truck artists in both Lahore and Karachi. Still, he is modest in his conclusions. Some commentators have tried to draw spurious distinctions between the different forms of painting in each area. Parchman recognizes that it takes serious expertise: “Though the differences are not apparent to the untrained eye, drivers can tell what part of Pakistan a vehicle is from based on its decorations.”

If there is one part of the article with which I might take issue, its the final paragraphs. The contrasts between Pakistani truckers and their American counterparts are noteworthy, though this deserves a much more thorough analysis.