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


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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New Truck Art Exhibits in Houston, Paris

Two galleries featuring truck-art inspired art have recently opened.

In Houston from May 1 – May 8, Voices Breaking Boundaries features Art Car Sprawl in the First Ward which combines traditional Pakistani truck art with modern, digital influences. The Pakistan Chronicle describes the opening, which sounds as eclectic as the art itself:

The show… will feature Houston art car and Pakistani truck art history, and include a preview of VBB’s first art car, Digital Meets Pakistani Truck Art, designed by Eric Hester and Sehba Sarwar. Decorations on the car include video screens showing VBB’s history, truck art designs from Karachi collected by Sehba Sarwar on a recent trip to Pakistan, and an open mic podium welded out of the passenger seat.

The description of the show links to this article in the Independent about a leopard-print truck prepared by the Karachi School of Design, which sounds particularly memorable. Hopefully it is part of the exhibit.

In Paris, an exhibition hosted by Pakistan à Paris from April 29 – May 27 features the Foxy Shehzad as a centerpiece. (Strangely, the website of Pakistan à Paris, which is affiliated with the event, does not seem to mention the exhibit, while the Indians in Paris does)

Sadly, neither show seems to have any of their collection online. Why not share for would-be visitors who cannot make the trip?

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The BBC on Truck Art

The BBC has aired one of the more entertaining pieces of television coverage on truck art in its “Close Up” segment. Host Aleem Maqbool first visits the truck repair shops at Pir Wadhai, then the tribal truck art galleries, and finishes with a gift from one of the “famous” truck artists.

Click to play the segment

The artist featured at the end of the segment who prepares Maqbool’s portrait, deserves recognition. Though he may have the name wrong; Maqbool introduces him as Habib ur-Rehman, but his business card reads Al-Habib Ejaz. Regardless, not only is he the painter behind the Foxy Shehzad and responsible for many of the works in the Tribal Truck Art collection, he is possibly the first truck artist to have a Facebook page, albeit an underdeveloped one.

Appropriately, the segment even finds a rear “Love” painting to emphasize the origins of the art. Given that there is only so much explanation that can be included in a five-minute piece, this is a great way to capture the motivation behind vehicular artists.

Spending more time at the Pir Wadhai shops, Maqbool focuses on painted truck art. At about the 2:47 mark, he gives a nod to decoration pieces, pointing to an excellent peacock. The passing mention overlooks that the decoration piece can serve as a centerpiece and the most captivating, attention-generating part of the truck.

I have highlighted the Volkswagen Beetle at 3:00 elsewhere in the blog. The reporter would have done well to mention that cars decorated in the tradition of truck art are atypical for Pakistan. A painted car is about as unusual as an unpainted truck.

A painter mentions preparing a picture of Osama bin Laden at his customer’s request. I have never seen his likeness in truck art before. It might be more provocative than other visages of political figures, but is certainly well within the range of truck art.

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Karachi Decoration and the Future of Truck Art

The Pulitzer Center has a memorable feature filmed in and around truck workshops of Karachi. The coverage focuses on the workshop of Jamal “Lucky” Uddin, while other interviews highlights the importance of truck art to the average Pakistani. The challenges to the future of truck art, which are often overlooked in these brief segments, is noteworthy.

As the largest city in Pakistan and potentially the largest transportation hub, Karachi can make compelling claims as the center of truck art. There probably is not an accurate measurement of the “center” of truck art, but the craftsmen in Rawalpindi dispute the claim made by some of their Karachi peers. Curiously, the video closes with a few frames about the Karakorum Highway, but the connection is not clear. If the Karakorum highway is important to the development of truck art, Peshawar, not distant Karachi, deserves the claim of truck art capital.

The suggestion is that there are two trends that suggest a bleak trend for the future of truck art. The first is the global economic downturn, which leaves truck owners with left money to spend on decoration. The second, and more significant, is the growing use of shipping containers. While there are some colorful flatbed trucks, the absence of side panels significantly limit the decoration spaces. Still, as long as Pakistanis share the attitude of the guard who “loves” truck art (1:45), it is likely that truck art will remain for some time.

Take note of the excellent decoration pieces at 3:48 and 5:01.

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Another Transcontinental Decorated Volkswagen!

Common truck art imagery on the right side of the car includes the baraq above the rear tire.

Similar to the Foxy Shehzad, the car that travelled from Islamabad to Paris, another Volkswagen decorated in the truck art style is planning an overland trip to Europe. This one is launched by an enterprising German who has worked for the past year on energy issues in Islamabad and is planning on driving it back. What a great way to return home.

In February, the owner was waiting for an Iranian visa, without which the trip would be nearly impossible. (What other routes are there? The trip into China, and then Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan is a bit circuitous). Last I heard he had left and was nearly in Turkey. By starting in the Spring, he avoids many of the problems with mountain passes the made the Foxy Shehzad’s trip so difficult.

Decorated with some traditional truck art imagery, the car also has some more unique motifs. Birds are certainly some of the most common representational forms, which appear in multiple locations. There is a well painted Buraq, the prophet’s horse, depicted as it typically appears in truck art. There are some jungle animals, including elephants and giraffes, which are less common. Rather than portraying any individual Pakistani leaders, the artwork depicts noteworthy Pakistani sites, such as the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, where the Pakistani state was officially declared, and the iconic Khyber Gate.

Berlin or bust!

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Truck art and fashion

She doesn’t need the flashy truck art jacket to attract attention, but it helps

Truck art seems like a natural inspiration for fashion designers. It is flashy, colorful and eye-catching. In excess, the elements could be garish or overstimulating, but these risks do not seem foreign to modern designers. At least one artist has drawn from this wellspring of style. Deepak Perwani recently launched an elegant collection that borrows many aspects of truck art. The garments are lively and colorful, but not excessively so. The article does not describe what materials he uses in the outfits, but the color scheme is similar. Studs and mirrors, staples of truck art decoration pieces, could also transfer to the garments.

This is probably more difficult to extend to a men’s clothing line, which could result in something akin to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. His male garments are limited to shalwar khameezes that are more restrained yet still innovative. I doubt men’s clothing blends with truck art as well.

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One of the few decorated cars travels two continents

The Foxy Shehzad, a decorated Volkswagen bug, has successfully traveled from Islamabad to Paris. The blog chronicles the trip, which was initiated by a Pakistani trio including two doctors and an IT specialist. From their account, it looks like the mountains in Turkey near the border with Iran were the biggest obstacle to the small vehicle. Like most displays of truck art outside of Pakistan, the initiative is an excellent form of cultural diplomacy and displays a side of Pakistan that is unfamiliar to most. Their corporate sponsors should be satisfied as the effort seems to have generated abundant media attention. The car itself is beautiful and the Rawalpindi artists seem to have done their best work. There’s a nice tribute to Benazir on the left door of the car and Jinnah on the front.

The Foxy Shehzad in Islamabad

The car raises one of the questions that I’ve had about decorated vehicles since it first piqued my interest. In a country where jingle trucks are the norm, why aren’t there more cars with ornamentation? Truck art is, as the name would suggest, found mostly on trucks or, occasionally, other large vehicles such as shared taxis, buses, or tractors. Yet I’ve never seen a jingle car before the Foxy Shehzad. I thought about putting some colorful, jingled hubcaps on my car, but this would be far outside the norm.

What accounts for the paucity of jingled cars? A first explanation would be that a family car is considered a finished product, bought from a showroom complete without the need for any blandishments. But at the same time, when the cost of car improvements is so low and many Pakistanis accessorize their vehicles, with flashy stereo systems and wheels, it really doesn’t make sense that there are not more jingle cars. Perhaps the more accurate explanation is that a culture has developed around jingling trucks, which has not extended to smaller vehicles. Alternatively, there’s also less of commercial impulse with vehicles used for personal use. However, much of truck art is not advertising related.

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CNN’s Arwa Damon on Truck Art: “It’s a bit like being inside a kaleidoscope”

Arwa Damon is fascinated by truck art. A focus of her report is some Rawalpindi craftsmen that work in chamak patty, or reflective tape, which is the central element for decoration pieces. In addition to adorning the shaped metalwork to make decoration pieces, chamak patty is also fashioned into the strips that she highlights.

To avoid any mention of decoration pieces, the most eye-catching part of the vehicle, is a major oversight. In addition to the embroidery strips, the workshop also prepares decoration pieces. The metal foundation for a decoration piece in its early stage of construction is visible at 1:51.

Damon is understandably impressed by the deft cutting that workers apply when cutting and placing chamak patty. Delving further into the medium, she could point out that the highest quality, and most expensive tape is Avery, while the Chinese imported tape is the cheapest and most abundant.

Curiously, she reports that it costs 55,000 rupees (about $650) to fully decorate a truck. This number seems significantly lower than what other media have recorded elsewhere and what I’ve been quoted. Given how rare unveiled blond women are in these places, the workshop probably really wanted her business.

Accompanying the video are is a gallery of Pakistani trucks that is worth viewing.

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