As unlikely as it might seem at first, if you’re looking for examples of flamboyant surface design and decoration, you just need to look at trucks, buses and taxis in different countries around the world. For reasons that are specific to each culture many day-to-day work vehicles have been modified and painted to the point where they are stunning works of art.
Probably the largest and most pervasive concentration of these embellished vehicles is in Pakistan. There nearly every private and company owned commercial vehicle – from trucks, buses, vans and taxis to rickshaws and pushcarts – is intensely and fully decorated. Only the large 18-wheel container rigs escape this obsessive treatment.
The range of items painted across every surface of these mobile galleries is diverse in the extreme. It includes film and sports stars, worldwide cultural icons, military heroes, idyllic fantasy scenes, family portraits, birds and animals, passages from the Qu’ran, and purely decorative shapes/colors.
Truck cab interiors are equally opulent with faux marble door panels, silk flowers, faceted mirrors and flashing lights.
The practice of decorating commercial vehicles is so ubiquitous throughout Pakistan that decoration is considered an essential part of having a vehicle. It is estimated that in Karachi alone, there are more than 50,000 people working in small, family-run workshops modifying and painting vehicles of all sizes.
Transforming a vehicle involves a significant commitment of time and money. It usually takes six to ten weeks to complete a full size truck. The cost might equal two or more years’ wages for the average driver. And it is not uncommon for a truck’s owner to return every three or four years for a total makeover.
Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, maintains that the truckers in today’s Pakistan are the successors of the ancient traders who moved goods along similar routes using heavily decorated camel caravans. He says, “…the paint jobs identify competing ethnic groups, just as the different designs did on ancient pottery and later on fabrics and carpets. You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to.”
In future posts we will look at similarly embellished trucks, buses and taxis from a few other cultures. I think you will find that, in addition to being visually exciting, they give us a revealing glimpse into the heart and soul of their homeland.