An Observational Analysis into the Origins, Design Aesthetics, and Cultural Impact of Truck Art.
Pakistan is undoubtedly a country full of astounding talents, one of which is a historical and traditional form of vehicle designing and decoration, known famously as the Truck Art.
With its unique history and style, truck art is an outstanding example of visual culture appreciated around the world, yet not widely acknowledged by Pakistani media as much as it is by western news channels, blogs, and vlogs.
It is one form of non-mainstream art that gained a reasonable share of popularity in Pakistan, more than calligraphy, miniature art, Islamic geometric and pattern art ever did.
This is because truck art is not hiding inside a mosque or trapped in an art gallery. These huge, colorful, and vibrant pieces of moving art dressed like a decked up dulhan (bride) glide on the streets, mesmerizing all those who get a good glimpse of them.
History of Truck Art
No one can clearly pin-point exactly who started the art of embellishing vehicles, but some sources give a multidimensional historical background of truck art.
Kafeel Bhai of Ghotki
The exact origin of this form of art is untraceable, but some archives lead us to Kafeel Bhai, an artist from a small town in Sindh, known as Ghotki. His bright-colored and lively illustrations on rickshaws, trucks, and busses awe-inspired everyone. Truck art was just one of the many skills he had from spin bowling all the way to weaving and carpentry, and of course, designing for the facade of trucks.
But the journey of a unique style of art on trucks didn’t stop there. His trips to the metropolitan city spread the designs and patterns in Karachi and all over Pakistan and eventually the world.
The Kohistan Bus Project
A few sources share that the roots of this extraordinary art form take inspiration from the craftsmanship of carriages from the British Raj era. Ustad Elahi Buksh further promoting the exceptional paintings and decoration on trucks and busses. During the 1920s, Elahi Buksh hired artisans from Chiniot, Punjab to help him with a project for the Kohistan Bus Company. These artisans had experience working on ornamenting palaces and temples from the time of the Mughal Empire.
Some other pieces of research enlighten us with another historic background of Truck Art. The cultural writing blog, My Modern Met elucidates that the idea of crown decoration and wooden paneling on trucks came from a UK-based company Bedford Vehicles.
Trucks with large crowns were first made in Bedfordshire, England. By the 1940s, these trucks known as the Bedford TJ were imported to Pakistan by General Motors and transformed with a gargantuan and heavily detailed wooden taj (crown) and adorned bumpers.
The Kekra Truck
Soon they became known as Kekra (crab) trucks. The Kekra truck is a common form of transportation in Tharparkar, Sindh because its robust tires and physique are perfect for sandy and uneven routes.
These monumental vehicles are embellished using Thari decorations that originated in the district of Thar. They branded each with a company logo as part of its visual identity so that it is easy to identify which truck belongs to whom.
With time, these logo marks or badges became increasingly fancy and competitive, as explained by local artist and educator Durriya Kazi in an interview on the topic. She said that the more flamboyant and gaudy the designs were, the more attention they received from the business community. Truck drivers in Pakistan consider these attractive trucks as a return on investment and thus, they look for the best handicrafters in town to make their trucks festoon.
Hajji Hussain — The Palace Painter
By the 1950s, the city of lights, Karachi became the center for truck artistry. A man, Hajji Hussain, is also credited for truck decoration. Initially, he painted palaces, but since no more castles were being made, Hussain turned to beautify trucks with his floral style.
By the late 1970s, although new trucks penetrated the market, local truck drivers preferred the appearance and engineering of the Bedford trucks that were also called the “Rocket”, not because they were fast but because they were slow at speed.
Unfortunately, the Bedford Company faced liquidation and today, even though the brand is not making any products, its trucks are being reused and rebuilt, and trucks of the like are being manufactured in small-town markets.
Truck Art Design Aesthetics
The exquisite arabesques, geometric and organic patterns, murals and landscapes, portraits and folktale characters, embossed metal, wood carvings and inlays, calligraphic poetry, and inspiring plus humorous phrases are all just a few characteristics of Truck Art and Design.
Every part of the truck is meticulously designed and carved then attached to the vehicle. From the exterior to the interior, every large and small piece of the decorative trucks is either glazed with shine or embellished with a variety of graphic art elements and mini sculptures.
Also known as Jingle Trucks in the West, the truck art that originates from Pakistan beautifully encapsulates freedom of expression, exemplary skills, the art of storytelling, symbols of popular culture, and folk art aesthetics. All these visual cues represent the cultural heritage of the different parts of Pakistan.
Imagery on Trucks
The trucks are covered in hand-painted scenery, mundane objects, famous landmarks, borders with filigrees, fauna and flora, reflectors and mirror designs, chamak pattis (bright fluorescent stickers), idioms, and poetic typography.
There are different images, scenes, and portraits painted in vivid color palettes on the trucks that steer their way on the streets of Pakistan.
Here are a few visual elements Truck artists most commonly use:
Mythical horses: Buraq is a winged horse with ideally a woman’s face. In some religious scriptures, this half-animal, half female creature is said to be the vehicle for prophets. Truck artists usually paint this drawing on the back of a truck in a fairly gigantic size, covering almost the whole canvas.
Famous Landmarks: Buildings and heritage monuments of historical and cultural importance are drawn on trucks. These include the following:
- Quaid-e-Azam Mazaar, Karachi
- Khyber Pass, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
- Faisal Mosque, Islamabad
- Badshahi Mosque, Lahore
- Khojak Tunnel, Balochistan
- Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore
Depending on the design of the truck body, these monuments take space either on the side of the truck or the back.
Women Portrayal: Portrayal of the women of this country in the media is done from a particular perspective. It is of course for the viewers to decide whether females are symbols of desire or symbol of suppression through art, design, and media. Truck art is also visual that shows women in its own unique way.
Celebrities: Different portraits are sketched and colorfully brushed on trucks. These personalities are (national and international) politicians, sports (football and cricket) players, music icons, social and education activists, Sufi saints, poets and thinkers, movie actors, victims of unfortunate incidents, and martyrs of war.
Most popular portraits on trucks have been of Princess Diana, Benazir Bhutto, Justin Trudeau, Malala Yousifzai, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Iqbal, Akbar Bukti, George Floyd, Shahid Afridi, Major Raja Aziz Bhatti, and Heer Ranjha among many others.
Following are some visual examples of truck art inspired portraits:
A tribute to George Floyd by artist Haider Ali that read the phrase, Hum Kalay Hain Toh Kya Hua Dil Walay Hain (So what if we are black, we have are loving) and also added the social media hashtag #blacklivesmatter.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when came to power became popular even among Pakistanis because he was quite a handsome and pleasing personality. Trudeau’s tweets also embraced the Muslim community and thus Pakistanis painted his portrait with truck art floral frame.
As we all know, especially cricket fans, that Shahid Afridi is the cheetah of sixes. He has influenced many young people to show interest in this sport because his performance on the ground has always been entertaining.
Lady Diana was the first wife of Prince William. She became an iconic figure across the globe because of her humanitarian efforts. Not just in Britain but other countries of the world such as Africa and Pakistan also recognized her as a distinguished personality. She also became popular in Punjab because of her affair with Hasnat Ahmad Khan.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sights of sun-setting and sun-rising is painted on the trucks using different color palettes. The color scheme for sunrise has warm colors like red, orange, and yellow while the colors for sunset are cool including blue, purple, green.
Flora and Fauna: Trucks showcase flowers and plants of different kinds. Floral elements add beauty and softness to the overall design. Flower motif and patterns are used all around the trucks as head-bands even.
Animals like the cheetah represent speed, the lion represents king and power, and the peacock symbolizes gracefulness.
Folktale Characters: Mascots of well-known folk-tales and stories are painted on trucks to recapture romance and tragedy between two lovers like Heer and Ranjha or Sassi Pannu or Ijaz and Firdaus in romantic and passionate folklores.
Man-made Objects: From sailboats to weapons like the F-16 have also appeared on trucks. Depending on the region the objects vary.
Landscapes: On most trucks, you will see rural landscapes with mountains and valleys in the background and houses or barns in the foreground.
Birds: Trucks are hand-painted with an assortment of birds like a peacock that symbolizes beauty and elegance, a parrot that is a symbol of intelligence and humor, and an eagle to portray power and aspiration.
Facial Features: Truck artists also draw eyes on many trucks because this body part signifies sight, beauty, and it is said that eyes protect people from evil and bad omen.
Many online blogs further elaborate on the artistic aesthetic of truck art drawings and designs. Pakistan Insider writes that truck art is a “kaleidoscopic exhibition” whereby trucks are decorated with “chains, pendants, and hammered metalled danglers”. The sounds of these things tingling are why these vehicles are called, Jingle Trucks.
The color schemes on the trucks are different yet multi-colored, bright, saturated, shaded, neon, and layered.
Impact of Truck Art on Popular Culture
The online publication, DesiBlitz called truck art “Pakistan’s artistic identity”, which is true. Today, truck art is not simply on trucks but a variety of different products and items. Truck art has made its place in everyday lifestyle.
Truck art is seen on fashion items like shoulder bags, sandals, clothes, bandanas, jewelry, wallets, shirt buttons, and helmets.
Here are some truck art inspired fashion attires and accessories:
Designer Maheen Khan’s fashion brand is a tribute to the indigenous art of trucks in Pakistan. She incorporated the same drawing and painting style in her long shirts, scarves, and pants.
A top fashion designer of Pakistan, Rizwan Beyg has also been applauded for his creative work that took direct references from truck art and design with modern fashion cuts. Beyg created jackets, waistcoats, and skirts for his 2013 fashion line at Buckingham Palace, UK.
Many brands now make fashion accessories that take elements of truck art to make their unique creations.
Nowadays, because of the looming pandemic, fashion designers across Pakistan have made breathable cloth masks inspired by different fashion and art styles, one of which is truck art. Now that masks are the new usual, fashion designers have switched from surgical masks to printed, trendy, and decorative ones.
Truck art is seen on home décor items like chairs and tables, wall hangings, wall art paintings, sofa pillows, photo frames, tissue paper boxes, and lanterns.
Among the many truck designers, Gul Khan has become a significant source of inspiration. We also know him as Phool Jee. Gul started off making truck art style khussas and kohla puri chappals to keep in shops, but today he has his online e-commerce store.
Gul Khan makes many everyday usage items and decorations from bookmarks to ashtrays and crockery.
Apart from Khan, many other designers and entrepreneurs have invested in the art and design of the truck. These physical and online shops offer a variety of items including photo frames, floor mats, mirror frames, wall art hangings, aprons, and just about everything needed in the house.
This type of art is also on kitchen items and appliances like teapots and kettles, coasters, table mats, hot plates, teacups, and aprons.
Italian fashion brand, Dolce & Gabbana manufactured a series of kitchen hardware that looks like truck art but is actually Sicilian art. The Pakistani media says it is in fact truck art and design, but the European media shares that it is an art form from Sicily, a region in Italy.
We can say that truck art and Sicilian art are both similar, but they each have their unique characteristics.
Moving on, Pakistani truck art is easily recognizable when you see it on household items.
One of my cousins used the truck art theme for one of the events in her wedding. They made truck art mandalas on the sides of the shamiana (canopy) in the hall or walkway.
From pencil holders to notebooks, many educational items have truck-related art and designs on them for both local and international buyers.
Truck Art Miscellaneous Items
Objects of use and display are many that have truck art motifs, patterns, colors, drawings, and overall aesthetics.
Truck art shapes, patterns, drawings, and colors have become an integral part of the Pakistani visual culture. They use it on several things and even in restaurants. Just like the Ajrak is a dominant part of the visual culture of Sindh, truck art has become a major part of this country’s visual identity.
Impact of Truck Art on Language
With the rising popularity of truck art, idioms and poetry have also taken off. In an age of “instant gratification” the best way to grab attention is to pair text with visuals or design text in a pleasingly attractive way, using different styles of writing and adding colors or graphic elements like lines and shapes.
The phrases added to a truck’s body are hilarious, cheeky, and very entertaining. On his Facebook page, truck artist Inam Elahi has shared a number of truck images with either slogans, poem stanzas, or comical sentences.
Phrases like “Dekh Magar Pyaar Se” (Look but with Love) is used in stationery like stickers, notebooks, and in fashion like t-shirts. Another phrase that was circulated in media is “Don’t Jealous” and millennials began using it to tease friends and family. A few more famous phrases from truck artists include “Hum Chalay Dushman Jalay” (We’re Going, Enemy Can Be Jealous), “$ Ki Talaash” (In Search of Dollars), “Dil Jalay” (Heart Burns). These were the most used short sentences.
However, these aren’t the only ones. Trucks artists keep coming up with creative ways to use both English and Urdu languages to form text for truck decoration.
A few interesting examples are:
- Bewafa Larki Se Cigrette Achi Hai
Translation: A cigarette is better than a cheating girl
- Zindagi Mein Jub Bhi Kahen Mushkil Mukaam Aya,
Translation: In life when any problems come, the break nor the break helps
- Dil Baray-e-Farokht Nahi
Translation: Heart is not for sale
- Maa Ki Dua, Jannat Ki Hawa
Translation: Mother’s prayers are like heaven’s wind
- Horn Ahesta Bajaen, Qaum Sou Rahi Hai
Translation: Horn a little silently, the nation is sleeping
- Faasla Rakhein Warna Pyar Hojayega
Translation: Stay away or else we will fall in love
Truck Art Projects Affecting Society
Many artists, artisans, and art students have been involved in a number of projects relating to the art of Pakistani trucks.
Kaavan and Truck Art Story
Asian elephant Kaavan was found chained in a zoo in Islamabad. Originally from Sri Lanka, there were over two hundred thousand signatures on a petition to free Kaavan from misery.
Pop singer Cher has been speaking in favor of the elephant and against the treatment given to this animal. She thanked the Pakistani government on Twitter for releasing Kaavan to give him a better home.
To raise awareness for this cause, social activists painted vehicles with truck art designs and a message to “free the wild.”
Islamabad Airport Truck Inspired Art
The SBS Urdu web radio shares key information about the truck art wall hangings in Islamabad’s new airport. After the completion of the airport’s structure, art director, Noor Jahan Bilgrami contacted visual artist Munawwar Ali Saeed to direct and choreograph a wall installation project who then contacted another artist also involved closely in the truck art and W11 trend, Wajid Ali.
They embellished the walls in the baggage claim area with exquisite kaarigari (skill) of truck fine art. The mural was an effort of almost 35 masters of truck art and design from different cities of Pakistan including Karachi, Faislabad, Lahore, Multan, Taxila, Kohat, Swat, Pishin, and Mansehra etc.
In his interview, Munawar Ali pointed that “the culture of Pakistan is historic and colorful” and it is certainly true because trucks with all these beautifying qualities stand out from the plain ones, and these trucks are also more unique than the ones found abroad. These trucks don’t simply have graffiti on them, they are well-crafted with festive details and magnificent.
Lok Virsa Project for Children
There are many ways to approach education, and one of them is art. The National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage held a summer camp and a series of art workshops for children three to four years back, where they promoted the art of truck decoration taught truck artisans Habib-ur-Rehman, Muhammad Farid, and Muhammad Ijaz.
The program, “Craft is Knowledge” lasted for five days with 60 children from different local schools. These training sessions aimed to impart knowledge and foundational technical skills to kids interactively.
Women's Literacy Project
Anthropologist and filmmaker, Samar Minallah recruited truck artists to paint 20 trucks with “empowering portraits and messages to campaign for female literacy and the legal prohibitions on forced marriages of underage children”, reports Pakistan Today.
Pictures of girls with powerful messages were drawn on trucks.
Missing Persons Truck Art Project
Berger Paints started a campaign to locate missing persons of Pakistan by painting their portraits with their names, lost and found message and a contact number for those who know anything about them.
Instead of featuring famous people, this project aimed to highlight people that require immediate help: the ones who have been kidnapped, displaced, or are missing because of any other reason.
As reported by the blog, Branding in Asia, over 300 calls were received in the first week of this project.
Influence of Truck Art beyond Borders
Truck Art has inspired people beyond the borders of Pakistan and India. Westerners from America and Europe also greatly admire it and publicize it around the world.
Following are examples of how the western world took inspiration and influence from truck art:
Dolce & Gabbana — Truck Art Makeup Vehicle
Brand marketing is also about picking up trends or bringing something unique to the table. For their ‘Beauty on the Go’ project, luxury brand Dolce and Gabbana created a truck art inspired vehicle that behaved as a makeup stand on the move, to give quick beauty consultations to passersby on the streets of Milan.
Haider Ali Truck Art — Washington D.C, USA
Truck artist and founder of Phool Patti, Haider Ali painted his Toyota FJ Cruiser in truck art theme and drove it on the streets of America’s capital city. The boring and neutral roads filled with joy as he flaunted the dazzling Pakistani truck art designs in front of others.
Haider Ali also painted the vehicle of a resident of South Salem, New York, USA. Ali decorated Fahad Saeed’s gray vehicle with awe-inspiring borders, patterns, and typography. Saeed came across Ali’s work on social media and hired him to beautify his 1989 GMV Vandura.
Truck Art Foxy in Paris
In the year 2015, Canadian journalist and influencer Caroline Issa of Because Magazine spotted a Volkswagen in Paris, France painted in Pakistani truck art with a flag of the two countries. This became news when she posted it on her Instagram.
Ice-cream Parlor Truck Art in Dubai
An ice-cream shop on Damascus Street, Dubai has designed its interior walls and stools with truck inspired art style. It is a small parlor but it is an effort to promote friendship between Pakistan and Dubai by putting them side-by-side in a wall painting. The shop is called Billo Ice-Cream. I have been there with my sister to enjoy a glass of falooda.
Another restaurant in Dubai called the Truck Adda has designed its interior to match the truck art vibe. They took it a step forward than Billo ice-cream.
Truck Art Lego
Adam Grabowski, a Danish visual artist, paid homage to the visual culture of Pakistan by recreating a Lego set using not just the truck art but also the experience of traveling in one of these vehicles. The exhibition with the display was named, ISUZU.
Magazine Cover Truck Art
The British Council of Karachi commissioned bus and truck artist, Islam Gull of Bhutta village to create two panels of truck art that will then be photographed for the Granta magazine cover 112 issue. The task was to use the same tools and paints as artisans do for trucks.
These are only a few examples of truck art have been used by locals and foreigners to market it around the world in different ways. Truck art and design have been featured in international exhibitions in top galleries and museums such as Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C.
Here is a photo of my sister and me next to the exhibit in the Smithsonian museum in 2002. We were so proud to see the visual culture of Pakistan ooze from this piece of design. While she is posing to climb it, I am uncannily doing the Punjabi bhangra (dance) pose.
Truck art style tram in Melbourne, Australia. I have been on trams in San Francisco, but they’re nothing like this. The metalwork on this tram is intricate and stunning.
Truck art is without a doubt a “powerful source of communication within and around cultures”, writes Samina Zia Sheikh in her paper Impact of Truck Art, As Popular Culture on Pakistani Society.
Sheikh further explains, “Truck art represents not only communities with which it belongs but also offers an assortment of philosophies, narrative, and metaphors.”
Truck art represents the lively personality of the people of Pakistan and the enthralling diversity in every nook and corner of this country. This form of visual communication reflects who we are (our identity) and also of how we influence others.
Well, to be honest, this is a never-ending cultural art journey so concluding right now is only to say it as an intermission. We have yet to see Elon Musk getting truck artisans to paint space ships, submarines, and rockets.
Even though truck art has been overdone, it still has a lot of potential. Perhaps truck designers from Pakistan can collaborate with artists from Africa, Russia, and Sicily to create masterpiece murals in each country.
There are many more ways to incorporate truck art into the visual culture of this country from something as little as face painting to something bigger like collaborating with mobile brands to create truck art inspired smartphone bodies.
Let’s wait and watch where this journey takes us.