On the term “jingle art”

The term “jingle truck” has become shorthand for decorated, customized Pakistani trucks.  According to most reports,  American servicemen in Afghanistan coined the term, though other accounts date it to the period of British colonialism.  Yet with increasing frequency, “jingle art” not longer appears in quotes or with the mention that it is an “unofficial” label. It has now become an accepted  term and appears in official NATO press releases and other media without quotations or caveats. There is a need for a succinct noun to describe vehicular decoration in Pakistan, but there should be a better term.  For several reasons, this blog tries to avoid using “jingle art.”

A Pakistani ice cream vendor and his American counterpart. Both announce their presence with a jingle (the Pakistani tune seems fairly standard and mildly infectuous). These are the real jingle carts and trucks, not Pakistani art trucks.

To reduce Pakistani decorated trucks to their sound overlooks much of the art. The part of the vehicle that makes noise is only a small fraction of the decorations, usually attached below the front and rear fender, and sometimes the side. On a dark road at night, the sound of the small metal beads hitting each other may be the only sign of the truck. But the beads represent very little of the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into producing a decorated truck . It is the reflective material and paintings that really standout, alerting oncoming vehicles and attracting admirers.

The US military does not have the best record for cultural sensitivity in naming and is not the best source for neologisms. One of the hallmarks of poor naming is how thanks to Team America, all Arabic speakers (and probably some Dari/Pashto speakers, too) are nicknamed “dirka-dirka.” The Middle East is not a culture rich region and the birthplace of civilization, but the “Sandbox.”  (At the same time, the US military is quite familiar with decorated Pakistani vehicles and may be one of the largest sources of income for drivers of embellished trucks. According to this estimate, “over a million dollars in contracts for “Jingle Truck” transportation is spent a month” by the US military.)  Of course, “jingle truck” is a much less pejorative label than “sandbox” or “dirka-dirka” but inaccurate nonetheless.

Is there a better term? Eminent truck art scholar Jamal Elias uses “art trucks” instead of “jingle trucks,” which is an acceptable, if imperfect, alternative.

New Truck Art Exhibits in Houston, Paris

Two galleries featuring truck-art inspired art have recently opened.

In Houston from May  1 – May 8, Voices Breaking Boundaries  features Art Car Sprawl in the First Ward which combines traditional Pakistani truck art  with modern, digital influences. The Pakistan Chronicle describes the opening, which sounds as eclectic as the art itself:

The show… will feature Houston art car and Pakistani truck art history, and include a preview of VBB’s first art car, Digital Meets Pakistani Truck Art, designed by Eric Hester and Sehba Sarwar. Decorations on the car include video screens showing VBB’s history, truck art designs from Karachi collected by Sehba Sarwar on a recent trip to Pakistan, and an open mic podium welded out of the passenger seat.

The description of the show links to this article in the Independent about a leopard-print truck prepared by the Karachi School of Design, which sounds particularly memorable. Hopefully it is part of the exhibit.

In Paris, an exhibition hosted by Pakistan à Paris from April 29- May 27 features the Foxy Shehzad as a centerpiece.  (Strangely, the website of Pakistan à Paris, which is affiliated with the event,  does not seem to mention the exhibit, while the Indians in Paris does)

Sadly, neither show seems to have any of their collection online. Why not share for would-be visitors who cannot make the trip?

The BBC on Truck Art

The BBC has aired one of the more entertaining pieces of television coverage on truck art in its “Close Up” segment. Host Aleem Maqbool first visits the truck repair shops at Pir Wadhai, then the tribal truck art galleries, and finishes with a gift from one of the “famous” truck artists.

Click to play the segment

The artist featured at the end of the segment who prepares Maqbool’s portrait, deserves recognition. Though he may have the name wrong; Maqbool introduces him as Habib ur-Rehman, but his business card reads Al-Habib Ejaz. Regardless, not only is he the painter behind the Foxy Shehzad and responsible for many of the works in the Tribal Truck Art collection, he is possibly the first truck artist to have a Facebook page, albeit an underdeveloped one.

Appropriately, the segment even finds a rear “Love” painting to emphasize the origins of the art. Given that there is only so much explanation that can be included in a five-minute piece, this is a great way to capture the motivation behind vehicular artists.

Spending more time at the Pir Wadhai shops, Maqbool focuses on painted truck art. At about the 2:47 mark, he gives a nod to decoration pieces, pointing to an excellent peacock. The passing mention overlooks that the decoration piece can serve as a centerpiece and the most captivating, attention-generating part of the truck.

I have highlighted the Volkswagen Beetle at 3:00 elsewhere in the blog. The reporter would have done well to mention that cars decorated in the tradition of truck art are atypical for Pakistan. A painted car is about as unusual as an unpainted truck.

A painter mentions preparing a picture of Osama bin Laden at his customer’s request. I have never seen his likeness in truck art before. It might be more provocative than other visages of political figures, but is certainly well within the range of truck art.

Karachi Decoration and the Future of Truck Art

The Pulitzer Center has a memorable feature filmed in and around truck workshops of Karachi. The coverage focuses on the workshop of Jamal “Lucky” Uddin , while other interviews highlights the importance of truck art to the average Pakistani. The challenges to the future of truck art, which are often overlooked in these brief segments, is noteworthy.

As the largest city in Pakistan and potentially the largest transportation hub, Karachi can make compelling claims as the center of truck art. There probably is not an accurate measurement of the “center” of truck art, but the craftsmen in Rawalpindi dispute the claim made by some of their Karachi peers. Curiously, the video closes with a few frames about the Karakorum Highway, but the connection is not clear. If the Karakorum highway is important to the development of truck art, Peshawar, not distant Karachi, deserves the claim of truck art capital.

The suggestion is that there are two trends that suggest a bleak trend for the future of truck art. The first is the global economic downturn, which leaves truck owners with left money to spend on decoration. The second, and more significant, is the growing use of shipping containers. While there are some colorful flatbed trucks, the absence of side panels significantly limit the decoration spaces.  Still, as long as Pakistanis share the attitude of the guard who “loves” truck art (1:45), it is likely that truck art will remain for some time.

Take note of the excellent decoration pieces at 3:48 and 5:01

Are Decorated Trucks an Offense In Pakistan?

This AFP segment reports a development that has potentially devastating implications for the future of truck art. Police are ticketing truck drivers for having their windows obscured. While this might cause more focus on the side panel decorations, it could discourage the art entirely.

Click to the play the segment

The segment raises a lot of questions? Is this a law for just Islamabad, where large trucks are usually prohibited? What level of decoration constitutes an “obscured” window? Many motorcyclists have helmets with writing – isn’t this far more dangerous?

The truck driver makes the excellent point that the safety benefits of alerting other vehicles through decoration probably outweigh the risks posed by a little calligraphy on the front windshield. But the traffic police of Rawalpindi and Islamabad are recognized as the most professional and it is doubtful that this wins the argument. Having been ticketed multiple times myself, I know that they show little leniency in applying laws.

Another Transcontinental Decorated Volkswagen!

Common truck art imagery on the right side of the car includes the baraq above the rear tire.

Similar to the Foxy Shehzad, the car that travelled from Islamabad to Paris, another Volkswagen decorated in the truck art style is planning an overland trip to Europe. This one is launched by an enterprising German who has worked for the past year on energy issues in Islamabad and is planning on driving it back. What a great way to return home.

In February, the owner was waiting for an Iranian visa, without which the trip would be nearly impossible. (What other routes are there? The trip into China, and then Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan is a bit circuitous). Last I heard he had left and was nearly in Turkey. By starting in the Spring, he avoids many of the problems with mountain passes the made the Foxy Shehzad’s trip so difficult.

Decorated with some traditional truck art imagery, the car also has some more unique motifs. Birds are certainly some of the most common representational forms, which appear in multiple locations. There is a well painted Buraq, the prophet’s horse, depicted as it typically appears in truck art. There are some jungle animals, including elephants and giraffes, which are less common. Rather than portraying any individual Pakistani leaders, the artwork depicts noteworthy Pakistani sites,  such as the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, where the Pakistani state was officially declared, and the iconic Khyber Gate.

Berlin or bust!

Truck art and fashion

She doesn't need the flashy truck art jacket to attract attention, but it helps

Truck art seems like a natural inspiration for fashion designers. It is flashy, colorful and eye-catching. In excess, the elements could be garish or overstimulating, but these risks do not seem foreign to modern designers. At least one artist has drawn from this wellspring of style. Deepak Perwani recently launched an elegant collection that borrows many aspects of truck art. The garments are lively and colorful, but not excessively so. The article does not describe what materials he uses in the outfits, but the color scheme is similar. Studs and mirrors, staples of truck art decoration pieces, could also transfer to the garments.

This is probably more difficult to extend to a men’s clothing line, which could result in something akin to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. His male garments are limited to shalwar khameezes that are more restrained yet still innovative. I doubt men’s clothing blends with truck art as well.