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PR Commentary
From Cargo to Canvas: The vibrant world of Pakistani Truck Art

  Sneha Surendran

Truck painting traces its roots to the colonial period when Bedford trucks were imported by the colonial rulers. Back then, visual imagery on vehicles were easier for the largely illiterate population to identify trucks and their owners. The practice of truck art began among common people and over time, it rose to become an endearing tradition that captivated the imagination of the people

Pakistan has over 277,000 registered trucks that play a vital role in the transportation of goods across the country. However, unlike trucks in other regions, the ones that rumble through Pakistan’s roads are moving works of art with their extravagant embellishments, intricately coloured paintings, swaying bells, mirror works, and imposing size. Illustrations of birds, animals, flowers, and visages of actors, politicians, cricketers, and even army generals grace the outer walls of the trucks, alongside jokes, riddles, and poetry. The inside of the vehicles is no less decorated with hanging ornaments and embroidered drapes.

Truck painting traces its roots to the colonial period when Bedford trucks were imported by the colonial rulers. Back then, visual imagery on vehicles were easier for the largely illiterate population to identify trucks and their owners. The practice of truck art began among common people and over time, it rose to become an endearing tradition that captivated the imagination of the people. While the production of Bedford trucks has long ceased, the ones remaining in Pakistan continue to be treasured by their owners. The sheer size and load-bearing capacity of these once-common vehicles, along with the deeply intertwined tradition of decorating them has made these trucks an indelible part of Pakistani culture. Apart from the vibrant decor, Bedford trucks are distinguishable by the imposing crown on the front rim, called the “taj.” The taj is also subject to beautification, which enhances the proportion of the already big trucks. Such is people’s dedication to truck decoration that owners of non-Bedford trucks often customize their vehicles to enable the outer surface suitable for painting and embellishments.

Truck drivers and artists:
There are two sections of people behind the beautification of these trucks: the truck drivers, and the truck painters. Drivers regard their vehicles as their pride and prestige for as people who spend months on the move, the truck is their home. Well-decorated trucks also attract clients and add value points in marketing. There is an almost unsaid competition among these drivers to showcase the most eye-catching truck on the road. As a Karachi-based driver stated: “Someone can say it’s a waste of money to decorate it, but when I buy a truck, it’s my truck. I want it to be more beautiful than any other truck on the road.” Drivers shell out over USD 2500 for the upkeep, with paintings and decorations receiving retouching and maintenance almost every five years.

Despite its prominence, truck painting has not been accorded a formal status in Pakistan. It is propagated by self-taught artists or those who pick up the skills from others. While truck drivers may approach artists with specific design requests, the latter often rely on their creativity and expression to determine a style that best fits the client truck’s model. Over time, truck painting has become localized with different regions of the country boasting a manner that is unique and distinguishable from others. For instance, trucks from Karachi display watercolour paintings, mirror works, and woodcarving whereas sticker art is favoured in Rawalpindi. Apart from the medium of expression, the style of depicting images also differs between regions and artists. 
It is noteworthy that truck art has not remained confined to trucks alone, neither is it an art form unique to Pakistan. Truck art designs have been and continue to be faithfully rendered on bullock carts, rickshaws, and other modes of transportation including airplanes in the country. Furthermore, embellishing vehicles is also a practice in neighbouring India and countries elsewhere, but Pakistan’s trucks take the cake for the magnitude of the decorations and the intensity of dedication from the actors involved.

Moving beyond individual expression:
The purpose of Pakistan’s truck art has travelled beyond the simple initial goals it fulfilled, that being identification and personal expression. Now, truck art plays a larger role:

1. Billboard on wheels: Painted trucks have come in handy as a tool to spread awareness on socially sensitive topics. For this, activists have teamed up with truck artists and drivers to use the vehicles as advertising mediums that carry messages on sexual abuse, child marriages, honour killings, and education to name a few. Samar Minallah Khan, an anthropologist and a documentary filmmaker who is involved in such project’s states how this form of advertising is compelling: “It’s important to use culturally sensitive tools that resonate with local audiences.” In another ongoing project, the faces of missing children are painted onto trucks along with helpline numbers. According to reports, five out of 20 missing children have been tracked down and rescued through these portraits.

2. Alleviating Islamophobia and breaking stereotypes: In 2015, Chattanooga, a city in Tennessee saw a wave of anti- muslim hate following a shootout perpetrated by a naturalized US citizen born in Kuwait. With a desire to tackle this discrimination, Kate Warren, founder of a local NGO named Art 120, teamed up with Sadaf Khan, a Pakistani truck artist, to launch the Jingle Truck Program in 2019. Through this initiative, Warren hoped to open young minds to cultures beyond their own and to use art as an icebreaker to begin conversations around Muslim culture and traditions. Khan decorated four-wheelers with Pakistani truck art designs, and incorporated features distinct to Tennessee within the paintings, creating an amalgamation of different cultures. Samar Minallah Khan has also pointed out how driving decorated trucks has helped unravel stereotypes surrounding the Pashtun community. The Pashtuns have historically been categorized as a warring faction. However, when these sturdy men set off on trucks bearing illustrations of nature and poetry, it helps propagate their artistic side. Khan reiterates: “Truck art breaks the stigma of seeing Pashtuns as men holding rifles. Through truck art, you celebrate the imaginative nature of Pashtuns.”  

3. A medium of relief in trying times: Truck art again rolled onto the scene after the devastating floods of 2022, bringing cheer and hope to a battered population. Artist Ali Salman Anchan who works to promote Pakistani truck art worldwide was commissioned to decorate a van supplying medicines to flood-affected regions. Anchan and his team visited Sindh in May 2023 to interact with the survivors. Lending an ear to their stories of pain and resilience inspired the painters. Anchan described the project as fulfilling, stating: “...the villagers in the affected areas are suffering a lot of things. But when we parked the truck up, the villagers celebrated and were all so excited.” Art became a medium of alleviating pain, if only temporarily, and inspired bonhomie among the affected individuals.  

4. International recognition: Pakistan’s truck art has slowly found its way out of the dusty roads it traverses into the world beyond the country's borders. For one, the tourism industry has realized the marketability of this localized art form. Dolce and Gabbana, an Italian fashion house, made use of Pakistani truck art-inspired patterns during a promotional campaign of the brand in 2015. In 2022, Blitzers, a K-pop boy band featured buses decorated with truck art designs in a music video that they shot in Lahore. Pakistani truck artists have also been invited to countries like China and Canada to spread awareness regarding their work through exhibitions, workshops, and live painting events.

While truck painting remains dear to the people, the arrival of transportation companies with modern truck fleets is slowly eroding this long-standing practice. Furthermore, the lack of incentives for artists is also forcing them to discontinue their trade and encourage their contemporaries to do the same. However, organizations and researchers dedicated to propagating truck art strive to advertise and preserve this tradition. As a Pakistani anthropologist quotes remarks on truck art: “It just celebrates their culture, their way of life. You see that they are artists. They are poets. They have a sense of humour. They are fond of nature. They are fond of, you know, so many things that need to be celebrated.”

Nadia Ahmed, “Art on the Move: Pakistani Truck Art and its Shift onto Modern Artefacts,” Tuwhera, 2022
Hannah Bloch, “
These eye-popping, hand-painted trucks rule Pakistan's roads,” NPR, 5 February 2022
Zinara Rathnayake, “
Pakistan’s Trucks Are Vibrant, Bedazzled Works of Art,” Atlas Obscura, 1 September 2022
After the floods, the future looks bright: truck art in Pakistan – a photo essay,” The Guardian, 17 July 2023
Dianna Wray, “
Pakistani Art Trucks on a Bridge of Culture,” AramcoWorld, November 2021

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