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))

A somewhat romantic figure, the driver carries with him a repute as a footloose rowdy, with indelicate mores and a particular liking for bawdy songs. He is admired for his tenacity to forage sun-baked deserts; for having traveled far and wide, linking towns, cities, and villages throughout Pakistan; for living the rough but rewarding life many a sedentary youngster might emulate. Much of this image is conspicuously displayed in the character of his motorized edifice.

Is the colorful explosion of expression found on truck carriages a reflection of trucker’;s self-perception and their outward representation? This is possible, but there are several reasons to doubt this connection. In the aggregate, the art truck looks chaotic and disorganized. But each individual element is the just the opposite. Truck panels are composites of many different carefully drawn pictures, most of which are idyllic, bucolic scenes of streams, mountains, or forests. While many of the origin and meaning of many of the motifs are unfamiliar to the drivers, to the extent that they consciously choose different elements, their selection process has nothing to do with promoting the raucous, rowdy image described by the authors above. In my conversations with truckers, some will identify with a certain picture, such as an eagle, but the elaborate composition as a whole does not represent their lifestyle.

Another reason to doubt the vehicle-as-mirror-of-lifestyle explanation is that trucker’;s lives are really not as glamorous as the mildly romanticized depictions above. While life as a trucker is Pakistan is not the worst profession, it involves “relentless hours of monotony on the roads,” which many drivers attempt to alleviate through drug use. It is continually physically grueling, as truckers for more than ten hours a day, sleep inside the cab of a truck or on the roof at night. The lifestyle puts drivers at greater risk of HIV and other diseases.