The art of commercial vehicle decoration in Pakistan
Other than for little boys and peculiar breeds of adult nerds, the appeal of commercial vehicles to the general public rarely transcends the mundane in the West and on the occasions they are customised there is little chance of the owner risking the dents and scratches of commercial use or letting any of the proletariat getting their greasy paws all over the immaculate bodywork, unless it was a trusted mechanic. For Pakistanis they are so much more.
Truck decoration isn’t a minority interest for obsessives, it’s pretty much the rule, if you want your customers to take you seriously. A couple of murals and some shiny fittings simply doesn’t cut the mustard with these guys: the whole vehicle has to be smothered in images, calligraphy, accessories and decorations. And it’s not just a visual thing, hundreds of pieces of shaped metal or even bells will jangle from chains, often around the whole perimeter and mobiles will spin in the wind.
Sculptured and decorated plate metal panels and pieces compete with painting for the most revered form of decoration and a skilled practitioner or artist can make a good living by local standards given the demand. Some men will start in their father’s trade even before their teens and can be well established by the time they are young men. Two men could take three weeks on the painting alone of the more impressive trucks, costing $5000 in the process though a top-notch, entire decoration job could involve $30 000, excluding the cost of the truck itself.
The art can have several functions. Perhaps firstly it is a form of advertising: a demonstration of your success to potential clients and your commitment to the business; details of the business and exhortation of its virtues will be part of the wording. The images can be an expression of the owner’s character as well as having the artist’s input and often have references to their homeland, with characteristic scenery and wildlife of the region. Sufi poetry, religious praises and imagery compose the spiritual aspect to some decorations.
It’s not just trucks that get all this attention: buses, pickups, rickshaws even tractors are commonly customised in a similar fashion. Different regions have their own variations in character so there’s always something to pique your interest as you travel around the country.
Truck and bus spotting may get you branded as a social outcast back home but in Pakistan you can release your inner nerd without fear, so relish the opportunity.