The city streets of Pakistan may be one of the greatest art shows in perpetual motion that you’ll ever see. Nearly every truck, rickshaw and bus is a kaleidoscope of color, festooned with trinkets, beads, fabrics and paint. This mobile art form started in the 1920s, when rival transportation companies began decorating their trucks to attract passengers. They had no idea they were establishing what is now one of the biggest forms of representational art in the country. For many working-class men in Pakistan, truck art is their only means of expressing their emotional views toward the world. For that reason, truck owners spend thousands of dollars on decorating their vehicles, carefully selecting their imagery. The process of fully painting a truck can take up to ten weeks, in which time the owner of the vehicle practically moves in with the hired artist to oversee the work. There are even highly regarded truck painters like Haider Ali, sought by only the wealthiest of truck owners.
Today, truck art has evolved from a marketing ploy to represent a deeper, spiritual message. “Unlike vanity plates and ‘pimp-my-ride’ style modifications, Pakistani truck art is about cultural history and tradition, storytelling, passion, and sometimes playful one-upmanship,” reports Web Urbanist. With representations of religious symbols, politics and communal life, every trinket and dab of paint carries significant meaning. The movement is so strong that the regional origin of a driver and his vehicle can be determined just by looking at the trimming or iconography. “While Sindh is famous for camel bone work, Balochistan and Peshawari fleet owners prefer wood trimmings,” explains Web Urbanist.
“Each brush stroke is done by a human, not any machine,” writes Khadija, a Pakistani art blogger. “Many artists, designers and fashion designers are inspired by truck art.” Influences of truck art are especially evident in the garments designed by Deepak Perwani and Manish Arora. While Perwani stays true to his Pakistani roots, Arora pulls inspiration from his Indian heritage, where truck art is also extremely popular.
Much like graffiti, truck art is developed and practiced by the local community, carrying deeply personal messages that are almost impossible to translate in a gallery setting. All too often, “national treasures” sit behind hermetically sealed glass for future generations to behold, while the art that most thoroughly represents a culture lives and breathes in the streets. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to get paintbrushes into the hands of American truck drivers and see what they come up with. What if every 18-wheeler that rumbled by on the highway featured a technicolor window into its operator’s soul?
For more examples of Pakistani truck art, check out these amazing images on Flickr.