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Pakistan's painted trucks: egos on wheels

The vehicles' drivers vie to come up with the most fantastic murals and distinct messages. But a monkey pulling a donkey by the ears?

July 08, 2007|Kim Barker | Chicago Tribune

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN — Wazir Ali makes $1,000 a month if he's lucky, carrying bags of rice, wheat or sugar from one city to another in western Pakistan. He sees his truck more often than his wife, and he wants it to look pretty.

So Ali, 36, spent about $3,300 on paint and metal designs. His truck is now being covered with fancy murals, scenes of a sailor rescuing a boy in the ocean, a boy holding a pet goat, Indian film stars, and a peacock on a pink background. His truck cab resembles a bordello, with plastic flowers, draped beads and velvet. It is almost impossible to see out the front window.

"I personally like butterflies, and I'm totally into flowers," said Ali, surveying the new paint job. "It's just to pretty it up. It's a passion."

In a country where much of life is beige -- the land, the homes, the traditional male outfits -- the trucks of Pakistan are splashes of color, fantasies of hot-pink trees, Mickey Mouse, kings, queens, ships, airplanes, tigers, fish and ever-watchful eyes. They're barometers of politics and popular culture, of the prettiest actresses and the favorite presidents. They're also the basis of one of the fiercest competitions in the country, an informal battle over which driver has the most fabulous truck.

These trucks have chains dangling from the bumpers that clink together on the road, causing U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan to label the Pakistani trucks "jingle trucks." Pakistanis and some Afghans are known to "jingle" their bicycles, their rickshaws, their homes, using tinsel, velvet, glitter, stickers and paint. There are jingle buses, jingle vans, jingle taxis, jingle stick shifts. Jingling is the South Asian equivalent of pimping one's ride.

Pakistani trucks are the pinnacle of the jingle art form: traveling art galleries and mobile diaries of the men who drive them. Trucks will list a driver's favorite routes and show the scenery he likes or simply imagines. Bumper poetry gives advice and highlights sorrows: "You're so cruel, you'd set the entire village aflame," one truck says. "My luck has changed, bad days are here. Ever since my lover jilted me, I hate the flowers."

Souvenir shops sell miniature painted trucks. A painted Pakistani truck has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.

But several experts say truck paintings are a fading art, with detailed work replaced by slapdash artists and intricate sticker designs. One group, called Tribal Truck Art, has employed master truck painters to paint household items, like watering cans and teapots, to try to expand its market.

"The quality of work has gone down," acknowledged paint shop owner Muhammad Zaman, 40, who says the most bizarre request he ever had was to paint a four-eared monkey on a truck. "We used to take our time on a truck. Now, it's just get it over with."

That hasn't staunched the appetite for truck art. And just like the trucks, truck yards are blasts of color -- painters like Zaman are dressed like a Jackson Pollock painting. Pink is a favorite color. Even the kids running through one yard sported bright pink vampire teeth.

Truck art started as a way to differentiate trucks in Pakistan from those in rival India after the countries split in 1947. By the late 1950s, after trucks began being massed produced locally and the economy stabilized, truck art flourished. Local labor added the wood bodies to the truck chassis. Painters covered the wood frames with murals of nature scenes.

"Truck drivers are wandering free spirits, so what they saw is what they wanted to be painted," said Habib ur-Rehman, 66, a former truck painter who says his strangest request was to paint a monkey pulling the ears of a donkey.

Competition between truckers and paint shops developed. The murals became more fantastic. At one point, some buses and trucks even featured giant model airplanes perched on their roofs. Such elaborate decoration is no longer common, but the paintings continued and the competition grew mean. Black ribbons tied on the sides of trucks are supposed to keep away the evil eye, or the envy of others and bad luck.

"We feel good about driving a pretty truck," said trucker Sheikh Basharat, 26, sitting in his truck cab, where dozens of plastic flowers hung from the ceiling. "It makes us look good too."

Of course, pretty is often skin deep. There is no air conditioning in most trucks, no power steering, and often, only one cushioned seat and a wooden plank for any passenger. But for Basharat, such amenities did not matter. The truck's image was so important, his assistant's major job was keeping the truck clean, which if done right takes three hours.

His front bumper said all that was important in the trucking world here:

"Of all the people who've seen my truck, some burn up with jealousy. Others just said a prayer."

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