Pakistan’s world famous truck art tradition dates back to the 1920s, when British Bedford trucks were imported to Pakistan and modified with large wooden crowns over the cabin. Most Pakistani trucks have an augmented rooftop to increase space for decoration and the backs of Pakistani trucks are often intricately decorated. Pakistani decorated trucks servicing Afghanistan came to be known as jingle trucks by American troops and contractors although it may date to the British colonial period. The term came to be because of the “jingle” sound that the trucks make due to the chains hanging from the bumpers of the vehicles.
Many trucks and buses are highly customized and decorated by their owners. External truck decoration can cost thousands of dollars. The decoration often contains elements that remind the truck drivers of home, since they may be away from home for months at a time. Decoration may include structural changes, paintings, calligraphy, and ornamental decor like mirror work on the front and back of vehicles and wooden carvings on the truck doors. Depictions of various historical scenes and poetic verses are also common. Outfitting is often completed at a coach workshop. Chains and pendants often dangle off the front bumper.
In Pakistan, Karachi is a major city center for truck art, though there are other hubs in Rawalpindi, Swat, Peshawar, Quetta and Lahore. Trucks from Baluchistan and Peshawar are often heavily trimmed with wood, while trucks from Rawalpindi and Islamabad often feature plastic work. Camel bone ornamentation and predominance of red colors is commonly seen on trucks decorated in Sindh. Truck art has extended beyond the decoration and ornamentation of trucks into other forms and media. In India, the Delhi-based artist Tilak Raj Dhir states that the slogans he adds to his truck art, which is prevalent throughout the National Capital Region, often change with the socio-political atmosphere. Truck art in Urdu is sometime called Phool Patti.
Though cars are not traditionally decorated in South Asia, there are examples of cars embellished in a truck art style. In 2009, The Foxy Shahzadi, a 1974 VW Beetle decordated in a truck art style, traveled from Pakistan to France over a 25-day journey. In the Indian city of Mumbai, some drivers decorate their taxis in a truck art style.
The lively colors of Pakistani trucks have inspired multiple fashion designers. The Italian fashion company Dolce & Gabbana used truck art-inspired displays in a 2015 campaign. Although used more often on women’s fashion, some men’s clothing have been inspired by South Asian truck art.
And while truck painting has taken hold in other South Asian countries, as well as South America and Japan, in Pakistan the art form is at a whole other level. An entire industry unto itself, in Karachi alone 50,000 people are employed in workshops dedicated to the craft, with truck drivers willing to spend big money to ensure their truck is better than the rest. While the bright colors and ornate decorations are certainly beautiful, the drivers also view it as good return on their investment.
“Our clients want to make their trucks stand out,” shares Pakistani artist Haider Ali. “When people look to hire a truck, they feel that if it looks fancy and newly painted, then it’s probably in better condition and they trust it more.” Also known as jingle trucks thanks to the bells festooning the exterior, drivers can easily spend up to $2,500 for a basic paint job, which is two years’ salary. And often, they’ll come back for touchups every few years to keep things fresh.
In the late 1940s, when trucks began long-haul journeys to deliver goods, each company designed a logo so that illiterate people would understand who owned the truck. Over time, these logos became increasingly ornate. “They were badges of competition,” explains Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi and an expert in truck art. “And the more flamboyant the design, the better business became.” In the 1950s, Karachi became a hub of truck art—a title it still holds today—when Hajji Hussain, an artist known for his elaborate palace frescoes, settled in town. Lacking palaces to paint, he turned to decorating trucks, and his ornate, floral style pushed the genre forward
One of the famous truck art artist of Pakistan Haider Ali was born in Karachi, to a family originally from Jalandhar in Punjab, which moved to Lahore and Karachi before partition. Ali received rigorous training in truck art as a child apprentice. He was trained from the age of eight by his truck artist father, Muhammad Sardar, who insisted on an ability to draw straight vertical and horizontal lines. By age 16, he had painted his first truck under master supervision.
Ali founded for Phool Patti, an organization that promotes truck artists from Pakistan across the world. Phool Patti means “flowers and leaves” and is a term Pakistani artists working in the truck use to describe the art themselves. One of his aims is to train young artists to continue his legacy. Healso taught at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture as a visiting faculty member.
On most projects, Ali blends his own set of visual vocabulary with imagery and motifs suggested by the client. In his Karachi workshop, he paints in the open air and sketches his ideas on the ground. If necessary, he has painted scenes that he has never personally seen, a task he enjoys. Ali will paint portraits of famous Pakistani political and cultural figures, which often appear on the rear of trucks. Upon request, he paints truck owner’s children, a task he finds more challenging as the clients closely scrutinize the work. Ali appreciates the sentimental quality of truck art and believes that love is at the core of the art. According to Ali, truck art is to Pakistan what Bollywood is to India.
As part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002, Ali painted a Bedford truck in Washington, DC. Jamal Uddin, another Pakistani artist, completed the body and metal work while Haider handled the painting. It is the only complete and authentic recreation of a Pakistani truck in North America and is noteworthy for conveying the totality of truck art, not reducing it to painting, metalwork, or other elements that are prized by elite art audiences.
In 2011, Ali also painted a truck in Luton, United Kingdom for a special Truck Art exhibition at the Stockwood Discovery Centre. Now part of the Center’s transport collection, the truck is only one of its kind in the U.K., and possibly Europe. Initiated as part of the festivities for London 2012, the project celebrated ties between Luton and Pakistan, as Bedford trucks manufactured in Luton in the 1950s are still used in Pakistan. Ali collaborated with 20 artists including Rory Coxhill, a British Gypsy artisan and folk wagon artist who apprenticed for eight weeks in Pakistan as part of the project.
In 2013, Ali visited Kolkata, India and decorated a truck as part of the city’s Durga Puja annual celebrations in honor of the goddess Durga. With the help of two assistants, Ali painted a pandal, or one of the colorful religious structures used for the event. The pandal structure was designed to give visitors the feeling of standing in the cargo hold of a truck while the head of the truck, or taj, was used to hold the representations of the goddess. The installation was accompanied by a truck art exhibition introducing visitors to the art. Ali understood his participation as supporting India – Pakistan coexistence and friendship.
In 2014, as part of a fellowship at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, Ali painted a van as a gift to the university for their patronage. Ali included California references including the bear from the state of California flag bear, the Hollywood sign, a bald eagle, and ocean sunsets. His work was shown as part of the museum’s exhibit, “From the Grand Trunk Road to Route 66,” which linked the culture of travel in the US and Pakistan and the explosion of vehicular-related art in the 1950s.
Ali and his team painted a mural on the wall of the Karachi Press Club which features notable Pakistani women including Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect and prominent activist Sabeen Mahmud. The work was commissioned as part of the “I am Karachi campaign”. It was the subject of local protests while it was being painted and later became a target of vandalism and graffiti. Ali restored the mural in 2017.