The painted trucks of Pakistan

Researcher James Elias Jamal J. Elias says it costs about $5,000—and takes up to five weeks—to decorate just one truck. And yet the artists responsible earn low wages and garner little respect in Pakistani society. Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Like many others in Pakistan, Jamal J. Elias took the exquisitely painted trucks so common in that country for granted. Then, one day, he stopped, looked—and wondered: “Why?”

“You see them everywhere,” says Elias. “But a lot of people don’t see them. One day I started staring at them, very carefully. And I started to see there was some order to the madness.”

Elias, a Penn professor of religious studies, has been staring at those remarkable trucks—and studying the people responsible for making them—ever since. It’s a culture that produces highly ornate designs, at great cost, and places them on most all of Pakistan’s working vehicles, from trucks and buses to vans and taxis. Even animal carts are decorated.
And while painted trucks can also be found in South America, India and elsewhere, nowhere are the designs as elaborate, or as ubiquitous, as they are in Pakistan.

Yet, even though he’s years into his research, Elias still isn’t quite sure of the motivation behind the painted trucks. He plans to return to Pakistan this summer to continue his work.

“Vehicle decoration, in general, is old,” he says. “The first guy who invented the wheel probably hung something from his cart. People used to decorate their horses … But the degree to which they do it [in Pakistan] is unique. India has some of this, but there is an exponential difference between the two.”

Elias has taken thousands of photographs of the trucks in the course of his research. He’s also conducted in-depth interviews with truck owners who make the designs possible—the decorations, which consist of hammered metal, mosaic and paint, cost up to $5,000 per truck and take around five weeks to complete—and the artists, despite their great talent, suffer horrible pay and don’t even enjoy the respect of their neighbors. Generally speaking, Elias says, these artists could enjoy better pay and better societal standing if they were restoring furniture.

“Some of these guys, they’re very good,” says Elias, who comes to Penn this semester from Amherst College. “But they can’t get legit work. What they do is not considered legit.”

Elias learned that when, early in his research, he told a group of Pakistanis about his research on the trucks.

“They thought I was crazy,” he says.

Though Elias’ research may appear to be about little more than kitschy pop art, he believes the painted trucks—whose designs include everything from humorous poetry (usually found on the rear bumper) to religious imagery (almost always on the front of the bus)—could help shed light on many aspects of Pakistani culture.

That’s true in part because trucking is such an important facet of Pakistan’s economy. The nation has little in the way of railroad infrastructure, so most of the nation’s basic goods are transported by truck. For a nation with 160 million people, that’s a lot of goods being moved by a lot of trucks.

“I believe [by studying the trucks] there’s a great deal you can learn about religious attitudes, about social attitudes, about attitudes toward modernity,” Elias says. “We’re talking about a very large section of society. I think [this research] is a way of doing religious history, or social history, but doing it against the grain.”

Originally published on October 19, 2006.

Originally published on October 19, 2006