Textures of Pakistan: Folk Art on Wheels

December 26, 2011 Updated: December 28, 2011
Master truck painter Paapay Riaz stands proudly in front of a Hino truck he recently painted at a truck painting depot in in Rawalpindi, Pakistan November 2011. (Masooma Haq/Epoch Times Staff)

ISLAMABAD—In Pakistan, folk art does not hang in museums or in homes, but rather a lot of it rolls down highways hauling goods long distances.

Truck owners here take great pride in having their work trucks elaborately decorated with miniature paintings and intricate designs. Each truck is a unique visual experience with dozens of miniature paintings that measure about 1 square foot, painted in bright hues, and framed by a multitude of patterned borders. Tin plates pounded into geometric shapes or into animal and flower shapes are fastened to the sides, and ornate metal fringes hang along the base of the bed looking like multicolored charms on a bracelet.

The back gate of Hino truck painted with a giant rose, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, November 2011. (Masooma Haq/Epoch Times Staff)

The backs of these trucks have large paintings, which are usually landscapes or the portraits of heroes. There are often carved wooden doors on both sides of the cab and ornate decorations inside the cab as well. At night viewing these trucks is especially electrifying with reflective tape and lights glowing brightly.

Before the 1950s, truck decoration mostly copied the logos and simple floral motifs that have been found on camel caravans and oxcarts for thousands of years, vehicles, which also carried cargo long distances. The practice of painting trucks took a monumental leap 60 years ago when an Indian muralist Hajji Hussain moved to the city of Karachi after marrying a Pakistani woman. Hussain was famous for painting colorful, stylized murals and frescoes in palaces, but in Karachi Hussain began decorating carts and trucks instead of royal dwellings.

In the early 1970s, when industry growth increased the need for commodities transport, truck art flourished and the decorations began to reflect the increased wealth of the truck owners. Today, instead of having a few motifs and floral borders, artists are commissioned to paint detailed pictures and patterns from bumper to bumper and top to bottom.

Although each region has its own style of painting, some basic themes that are consistent in all regions include floral designs, landscapes, human eyes, calligraphy, and animals such as horses, tigers, lions, and fish. National and personal hero portraits painted on the backs of trucks range from images of famous Pakistani singers, to military leaders, to Princess Diana.

According to Sajjad Haider, a research supervisor at a private university in Islamabad who wrote a thesis on Pakistani truck art, love of beauty is what motivates truck owners to have their trucks painted.

“The conclusion I drew from my research was that truck art flourishes because Pakistani’s love beauty, especially the people in the northern parts of Pakistan,” Haider said.

Truck art reveals a lot about Pakistani culture, Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi said.

“We have an irresistible tendency to decorate everything—from lowly tape cassette players to brides to trucks—because we’re such dreamers and escapists,” she said in a 2005 report published by Saudi Aramco.

“It’s all part of our need to intensify experience, perhaps to make us forget our drab lives,” Kazi said.

Truck Painters’ Workshop

Despite the vibrant floral motifs, truck painting is a man’s world. At truck painters’ workshops, the masters pass on their finely honed techniques to other trucker artists.

The “studio” in Rawalpindi, near the capital city of Islamabad, is a crater-filled muddy lot that can only be reached by driving through congested roads filled with pedestrians, vendors, horse drawn carriages, cars, taxis, and trucks.

Master truck painter Ejaz Hussian, better known as Paapay Riaz, has been painting trucks for over 45 years, beginning when he was 19 years old. Like the vast majority of truck painters Paapay Riaz never had any formal training but learned from his brother who also painted trucks. 

“I am very proud of my work and recently a decorated truck of mine was sent to Germany,” Paapay Riaz said. 

“My favorite subjects to paint on trucks are landscapes and flowers. I love to paint beautiful things in detail,” Paapay said adding that it takes four weeks of working full days to complete one truck. 

“I charge 30,000 to 35,000 rupees ($333–$390) just for my paintings on one truck, but the tape work, metal work, electric work, and woodwork are all charged separately,” Paapay Riaz said.

He claims he has painted thousands of trucks and taught over 1,000 students the art of truck painting.

Next … Truck Transformation