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.

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India – Pakistan Relations and the Future of Trucking: A Strange Feeling

The Washington Post has an article worth reading about the challenges and future of cross-border trade. Both countries are interested in expansion but are hampered by bureaucratic red tape. Though there are clear sings of progress; now, trucks are allowed to cross the border, which was only made possible in 2007. The existence of restricted Visas which only allow access to certain cities was news to me.

This article only makes a passing reference to truck art, when mentioning the “vibrantly painted” vehicle owned by a Pakistani transporting dates. The print version has some great pictures of fully decorated trucks preparing to cross the border. It is unfortunate the Post did not choose those for their online version.

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Vehicle Decorations and Their Drivers: Why Decorate?

The decorated cars featured in this blog are a novelty in Pakistan. In a country with per capita GDP of $1100 and just 8 cars per 1000 people, owning a vehicle is a privilege reserved for the elite. Car ownership is a widely held aspiration, a sign of wealth, and a demonstration of status.

Decorated trucks, on the other hand, connote something much different. According to many truck art scholars, the eclectic and colorful expressions found on truck art are an outward reflection of the trucker’s lifestyle. Alain Lefebvre makes this point in “The Decorative Truck as a Communicative DeviceSemiotica 75, no. 3-4 (1989). Page 218

The driver is aware of the reputation as a modern adventurer he has among the men-in-the-street.

Through his behavior and manners he tries to express masculinity, courage, and toughness in such a way that the others’; fear and respect are strengthened. He drives fast and carelessly, the road is his own; he smokes hashish (both to enhance his reputation and because it is an aid in surviving the tempo of work); he likes erotic love songs; he has sexual relationships with his young assistant; he smuggles goods; he shows off by recalling how he is constantly confronted with dangers on the road. In other words, these characteristics are complementary to the power of expression of the truck itself.

The difference between truck and car decoration could support this explanation. The car-owning middle and upper class Pakistanis share none the characteristics Lefebvre associates with Pakistani truck drivers. Instead, their life runs a pattern similar to their Western counterparts, working an eight-hour day and driving a normal vehicle appropriate for the routine of that lifestyle. In the eyes of many from this background, truck art is considered garish, sophomoric, and unsophisticated, and staid, unembellished vehicles are more appropriate.

Other scholarship on truck art echoes Lefebvre’s characterization. George W. Rich and Shahid Khan make a very similar point about the trucker’s lifestyle. (“Bedford Painting in Pakistan: The Aesthetics and Organization of an Artisan TradeThe Journal of American Folklore, 93, no. 369 (1980))

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Indian Trucks: Gender Differences, Guideline Similarities

Indian Homemaker has assembled an excellent photo collection of Indian trucks. I’ve commented [UPDATE THIS LINK]before on the similarities and differences between Indian and Pakistani trucks, but her pictures, translations, and brief comments are actually more informative than the broadcast coverage of Indian trucks.

There are several points that struck me as I looked through the pictures. First, Indian truckers seem much more concerned about safety than their counterparts. The rear of every truck has safety-related instructions. From these pictures “Blow Horn”, looks the most widely used, but other accounts find “Horn OK” as more frequent. “Use Dipper at Night” asks drivers to switch from a high beam to a low beam (or is it just saying, turn on your lights!). For the Indian trucks, this guidance is much more prominent than any pictures, poetry, or quips, which are the most visible fixtures on the rear of Pakistani trucks. Although not featured in any of Indian Homemaker’s collection, some Indian trucks do have murals on the rear, which look quite similar to Pakistani paintings.

In marked contrast to Pakistani trucks, which have a uniformly feminine appearance, Indian trucks vary in sex and age.

“Don’t miss ‘Chamiya’ ( a flashily dressed woman?) on the middle flap This truck is female Many trucks are also referred to as sons (beta), daughters (beti), tigresses (shernee) and ladla (a male brat) or laadli (female brat)”

Though it is noteworthy no trucks are called adult men, Indian trucks can be masculine. I’ve never heard a Pakistani vehicle given a male name.

The religious imagery on trucks are not specific to any faith. Allah Akbar (or some variation, such as Mashallah or Subhanallah) appears on every Pakistani truck and are distinctly Islamic. Religious decorations on trucks are much more universal, such as “God is One” and “God is Universal.” With such a range of Hindu deities to choose from, the absence of religious imagery may be a move to avoid sectarian strife. There probably is no advantage to having a truck that is easily identified as Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh as it limits access to certain areas, which is not a concern in Pakistan. (Though apparently Indian Homemaker’s selection is not a representative sample, and Hindu gods are painted on trucks, as this picture shows).

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Trucker Profile: Ateequr Rehman and his 1988 Bedford (part one)

I met 21-year old Ateequr Rehman near southern Islamabad, where he was waiting for orders. Sometimes, the truck owner will give him instructions, but often he works through an agent, or booker, who collects shipping requests. The booker is located in the same truck depot and when I chatted with him, Ateequr was on a break until he received his next instructions from the booker.

He has been working as a trucker for the past six years, starting as a trucker’s assistant. He frequently plies the Karakorum Highway to Gilgit, or Skardu, which is a 3-4 day trip. Most recently, he’s been traveling to Sost, the Pakistan-China border town, which recently reopened for trade. Originally from Abbotabad, Ateequr will sometimes stay a day or two there on the trip.

He receives a fixed amount for the trip to Gilgit. The funds are expected to cover all expenses, including petrol and fines, which are a common occurrence. His last fine was for driving through Islamabad before 11 pm, when trucks are prohibited, which cost him 300 rupees. Most frequently he is fined for carrying overloaded goods.

His monthly salary is 8000 rupees, though he can sometimes make more from the funds that are unspent on fuel and fines. While there are rest stops which offer cots, he usually sleeps in the cab of the truck, or on top of truck, in the taj, or decorated headpiece.

His 1988 Bedford Rocket was last repainted in 2005, and different shops were used for repainting and repair. The truck owner, who has a four-vehicle fleet, paid for the decorations. He expects that the doors and the artwork will be repaired in 2 or 3 years. The truck does not have any decoration pieces, but he finds them beautiful and likes to see them on trucks.

Prominent on corners of the truck are several black cloths, or romal, which protect against the evil eye. Ateequr says he doesn’t believe in the evil eye, but he was pleased to tie new, clean romal in the front.

All five of Ateequr’s brothers are truck drivers. When will he stop driving? When he looses the strength in his legs, he says.

Part two will describe the different motifs and elements in the truck’s design.

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NPR on Truck Art: The Contrast between the Color and the Conditions

In one of the better stories on truck art, NPR’s coverage focuses on a workshop near Islamabad, off the GT Road, which could be many different locations. The article captures the conditions of the workshops very well:

The conditions are almost medieval. The air is thick with diesel smoke; boys, men and sometimes whole families maneuver among smoking engines up on blocks, the sparks of welders and the hammering of metalworkers.

There’s also the pungent smell of hashish and battery fluids. All of this in stark contrast to the vibrant color of the art itself. The author does not mention decoration pieces, but these are found less frequently in workshops on the GT Road.

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Forever Young? Baez, Dylan and Truck Art

Art Slant has an article about the founder of Tribal Truck Art, Anjum Rana, and one of its Lahore-based painters, Ustaad Haider Ali. Interspersed with lines from Bob Dylan’s Forever Young, the article does its best to capture the inspiration and style of truck art. Tribal Truck Art has, quite effectively, replicated truck painting and put it on household items. Or, as the article puts it, “kitsch becomes high brow”. Kitsch is not the right word here, as truck decorations are only kitsch from the perspective of the high brow outsider. Folk art might be more appropriate.

Similarly, this quote is a bit of a mischaracterization:

Truck art in Pakistan and India represents desires, dreams, hopes, idols, serenity, food, color, protection, and freedom. The color and decoration signify a kind of escapism, from a reality that can otherwise be sharp at the edges, with few comforting spaces within. It represents stature: he who has the best truck will get the most business — amongst clients or ladies or otherwise.

Truckers do take great pride in the decorations of their vehicle, but this is not related to financial gain. This absence of any economic motive behind truck decorations is one of the most striking findings from the research of Jamal Elias and other truck art scholars. When hiring a truck for transporting goods in Pakistan, few companies ever see the vehicle beforehand. This is different for decorated buses, who have to compete among passengers.

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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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