Pakistan’s trucks are living, dazzling works of art

There are more than 277,000 Trucks on Pakistan’s roads. With their heavy burdens they crawl through the narrow paths of the country’s eastern river valleys to the rocky expanses of the south-western plateaus and – usually – to the snow-capped Karakorum mountains in the north; Recent catastrophic floods have swept away important bridges in the devastated region. Pakistan relies on these trucks for most of the country’s transportation needs. But they also fulfill another need: a platform to showcase the country’s culture.

In Pakistan, most trucks are vivid showpieces of extravagant design. They are adorned with ornate stripes, fish, peacocks, flowers, politicians, movie stars, cricketers and singers. They jiggle about the freeways with intricate wood frames and metalwork that glitter in the sun and bells and pom poms that swing from the undercarriage. For the drivers and artists of the region, they are more than just a means of transport. These trucks are statements.

“My trucks are my pride,” says Gulam Nabi, 45, from Karachi, who owns 10 trucks and works with traders to move goods. “Someone may say decorating it is a waste of money, but when I buy a truck, it’s my truck. I want it to be more beautiful than any other truck on the road.” Many drivers and owners share this sentiment competition and spend up to $30,000 – more than twice the average annual income – to paint their trucks to make them prettier than the rest.

“My trucks are my pride and joy,” says one truck owner.  They're also a source of competition, with owners spending up to $30,000 -- more than double the average annual income -- to outperform other vehicles.
“My trucks are my pride and joy,” says one truck owner. They’re also a source of competition, with owners spending up to $30,000 — more than double the average annual income — to outperform other vehicles.

In Pakistan, this lush work of art is called the “phool patti” and adorns almost every form of transportation — ice cream trucks, tractors, local buses, tuk-tuks, and minivans that ferry passengers from city to city. In rural Pakistan, camels are adorned with henna patterns and coiffed with ancient motifs. Seagoing boats are given a light coat of paint. “Vehicle decorating is in our genes,” says Ali Salman Anchan, founder and creative director of social enterprise Phool Patti, which promotes Pakistani truck art around the world.

Anchan may be right. Truck art is linked to antiquity, says visual artist Farah Yusuf Ali. During the Indus Valley Civilization (2600–1700 BC), which stretched from present-day northeastern Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwestern India, people decorated their boats and transported animals. This tradition of decorating every means of transport lasted for centuries and spread through the Mughal Empire and British India. Pakistani truck art, says Ali, is the contemporary version of this tradition.

When trucks arrived in British India in the early 1900s, local companies stamped their decorative logos on trucks. According to Ali’s research, these logos helped illiterate working-class people identify trucks. According to Durriya Kazi’s 1998 article “Decorated Trucks of Pakistan,” General Motors first introduced trucks to Karachi in the 1930s, and by the time of the partition of India in 1947, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, was a center for truck painting. Artists, metalworkers and artisans from all over the country flocked to Karachi to work. Ghandhara Industries, which took over the national arm of General Motors in 1963, imported large numbers of massive Bedford trucks produced by British manufacturer Vauxhall. Known for their durability, these Bedford trucks dominated the roads of Pakistan, many with ornate “crowns” – large wooden prows attached to the top of the truck.

Bedford Trucks are a common sight in Pakistan, many with large timber
Bedford trucks are a common sight in Pakistan, many with large wooden “crowns” on them. The massive vehicles provide the perfect canvas for portraits, a style unique to Pakistani truck art.

Some of the earliest truck artists were fresco painters in royal Mughal and Rajasthani palaces. When the British occupied the region, they were unemployed. Most of these artists were Muslims and migrated to the new Islamic nation of Pakistan. “When they didn’t have work, they applied their art to horse-drawn carts and trucks,” says Anchan. They became the masters of truck painting. These early truck decorations featured images of Hindu gods and Sikh gurus to bring good luck, Ali explains. They were exchanged by Sufi saints in Muslim-majority areas.

Truck Art has no formal institution. “We learn from the truck station. The master imparts the knowledge to you,” says Anchan. Truck Art stimulates the artist’s imagination and uses their own style to decorate each and every part of the truck. Each vehicle has its own shape and artists decide what design fits into the structure.

In Pakistan, truck artists from different regions have their own artistic styles. One or a few masters dominate a region, like Haider Ali from Karachi, whose grandfather immigrated from India as a traditional craft painter. (He painted a truck at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in 2002.) “When we see a truck as a community, we can say that this art is from Punjab or this is from Peshawar. The style of drawing, the flowers and the motifs are unique to regions and artists,” says Anchan.

Most of the new trucks end up in the port city of Karachi, where they are originally adorned with watercolor paintings, fluorescent paints, mirrors and woodwork. In Rawalpindi, a major commercial city next to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, chamak patti, or sticker art, is more popular, so trucks stationed there are getting a second makeover. “It takes us about nine days to completely redecorate a truck,” says 40-year-old artist Imran Riaz of the Rawalpindi truck workshop.

Each region of the country has its own style.  Here Imran Riaz, a truck artist from Rawalpindi creates Chamak Patti or sticker art.
Each region of the country has its own style. Here Imran Riaz, a truck artist from Rawalpindi creates Chamak Patti or sticker art.

On this day, Riaz meticulously carves a floral design for the side mirror of a truck. Riaz often has artistic liberties, but sometimes drivers and owners surface with their demands. “This driver is Kashmiri so he asked me to decorate his truck with Pakistani flags. He wanted to show his patriotism to Pakistan,” Riaz says, displaying a pair of Pakistani flags carved on glossy sticker paper.

While her trucks are a pride and a home on wheels for truck drivers, they also see her as a decorated bride, says Ali. “Every inch is covered in vibrant motifs and hanging metal embellishments mimic jewelry,” she says. Sometimes truckers want artists to draw a portrait of a politician, cricketer star, or folk singer they admire. Ali says that these types of portraits are unique and differentiate Pakistani truck art from vehicle art around the world.

“Truck art was also our social medium,” says Anchan, laughing. “When Imran Khan – Pakistan’s former Prime Minister – won the Cricket World Cup in 1992, we painted cricket stars on our trucks. When a movie became a hit, we drew the actor. It captures our current trends. It reflects the mood of a nation,” he says. Now truck art is also inspiring pop culture; major clothing brands incorporate it into their textiles and sneakers, and visitors can take home a piece of truck art from the gift shops at Islamabad Airport.

Pakistan's truck art "reflects the mood of a nation," says an observer.  It has also inspired pop culture, adorning everything from sneakers to souvenirs.
Pakistan’s truck art “reflects the mood of a nation,” says one observer. It has also inspired pop culture, adorning everything from sneakers to souvenirs.

Artists and activists also use trucks to educate and address social issues. “It’s important to use culture-sensitive tools that resonate with local audiences. Truck Art is an expression of local artists. It’s also a moving billboard that carries messages from one part of Pakistan to another,” says anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Samar MinAllah Khan, who has worked with a team of truck artists to convey messages about child marriage, sexual abuse, domestic work and to spread honor killings. Khan also worked with Roshni, a Karachi-based organization, to locate missing children, by painting their children’s portraits with helpline numbers on the back of the trucks.

Additionally, Khan says truck art helps combat the stereotypical depiction of Pashtun truck drivers. Often considered a warrior race, most Pashtuns live near the Afghan-Pakistani border region. “Truck art breaks the stigma of seeing Pashtuns as men with guns,” says Khan, “Truck art celebrates the resourceful nature of Pashtuns. You celebrate her love of poetry and art.”

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