The History of Pakistan’s Truck Art

In the middle of Karachi’s gridlocked traffic stood a truck, emerging from two rows of steel and tyres. Covered with extravagant brush strokes of bright bold colours, from yellow and white flowers to a pastel blue sky to traditional calligraphy, this truck was a page filled with history, culture and artistry. This was a beautiful example of Pakistan’s South Asian truck art which has developed into a global phenomenon over the past half a century.

The term ‘Truck Art’ is quite self-explanatory, and in Pakistan it refers to the decoration of a range of lorries, Vespas, and rickshaws which are predominantly found in Pakistan. The designs are complex and unique engulfing the body of the vehicle with vibrant shades and patterns – sometimes painted, sometimes carved, sometimes both.

Pakistan’s ‘Truck Art’ has been recognized worldwide since the 1970’s, when European and American tourists photographed the art and since then it’s reached London, Milan, Paris, and Melbourne (among others cities) where vehicles and even exhibitions inspired by this tradition are easily identifiable.

Without a doubt, the art is breath taking, but the most extraordinary part of this phenomenon is its history. Before the creation of Pakistan, in colonial India, Sikh drivers would cover the rear-end of their buses with religious portraits of their 10 spiritual Gurus. Muslims began to replicate this with portraits of local Sufi saints, and suddenly a definitive motif of a working class became a travelling canvas.

Thirteen years after Pakistan gained its independence, the art evolved into a political movement. Plastered on the rear of every truck were portraits of the country’s first military dictator Ayub Khan, painted by the supporters of his province. It’s only since the 1970s that the whole truck would be utilized, covered in art and calligraphy. Inevitably, the art was soon capitalized on by promoters, becoming stylized billboards for Pakistani films which were found in workshops on roadside eateries.

Words by Natalia Faisal

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