A new article and video from Al Jazeera features a retired bus artist from Faisalabad. The video has some great shots of decorated trucks and buses, but the coverage of the working conditions borders on sensationalism. The story dramatizes the working conditions of artists at the expense of more important points.
The article and video centers around Rafiq, a 69 year old bus artist who has devoted his life to the craft. Now retired, he faces daily boredom and relies on a respirator. He was unable to pay for his children’s education and now lives a meager existence.
To emphasize the “dark side” of truck and bus art, positive developments are downplayed. It is a travesty that Rafiq is disabled now, but working conditions for truck artists have improved. Painting is not as common as it used to be in the bus decoration, often replaced by cut reflective tape or readymade stickers. Even for painters that are working today, the paints used are rarely toxic and protective equipment is more readily available. As the video points out, some of the paint now mechanically applied, not hand painted, saving painters time and increasing the number of vehicles that can be painted.
We learn that he has a respiratory condition and that he could not afford education for his children, but his wages are better than they once were. He recalls that the days when he was first working as a truck artist as an unpaid apprentice and is glad those he are behind him. The dark side of truck art is slightly brighter and is much better than the work that burdens many Pakistanis who do not have a formal education. (Of course, the working conditions of truck artists are far worse than most any other artist, but that is a topic for another post).
The real dark side to truck art is the dark side of living in abject poverty. Rafiq suffers because there are limited social services in Pakistan, especially in the poorer parts of the country like Faisalabad. Rafiq’s cataracts aren’t due to his profession, they’re due to Pakistan’s failing health care system. The problem of child labor in truck art is significant, but it is indicative of the problem of school fees and poor education quality, not the art itself.
There’s a lot more that Al Jazeera could have covered if they weren’t focused on the “dark side”. Profiles of truck artists are fascinating and the coverage here doesn’t go as far as it could. What are Rafiq’s children doing now? Many truck artists continue the craft that they’ve inherited from their parents, was this not the case for Rafiq’s children? Did Rafiq work with the same team for the entirety of his career? How did his clientele change over time? What motifs are common now and what was popular when he was working? Truck art is different from bus art as there is more of an incentive for owners to decorate their vehicles as a better decorated bus can attract more riders. Does Rafiq see a difference between truck art and bus art?