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Big, bright and, to many, beautiful

The truck artists of Karachi apply a splash of color to an otherwise bleak canvas.

KARACHI, Pakistan (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — At first glance this is not a colorful city. An aerial view of Karachi reveals a sprawl of squat markets and utilitarian high-rises set among sparse vegetation and dull industrial public art, a landscape of stucco corroded by salty sea air and looming cement structures coated in urban grime.

But once you hit the streets of this megacity the real artistic spirit of Pakistan is revealed — and if you aren’t careful to look both ways it might just run you over.

Pakistan’s trucks rule the road. Their candy colored cabs of icy turquoise, deep cinnamon or iridescent green create fast-moving splashes of color cutting through the haze of exhaust on Karachi’s overburdened roads, and their studded crowns of perforated metal and gleaming mirror mosaics glint like armor under the omnipresent sun.

In addition to being a key part of the nation’s economic engine, Pakistan’s trucks are also the most visible definition of popular art and design in the country, depicting — in luminous paint— many aspects of Pakistani culture: from bloodied fists gripping barbed wire to diving hawks with talons outstretched to ruby lipped singers in glittery veils.

You can't spend a day in Karachi, whose warm-water port is a jumping off point for most of Pakistan’s shipping, until you’ve come face to face with one of these vehicular carnivals.

“We just like our trucks to look good,” said Abdul Rahid, owner of a small fleet of trucks that each evening departs Maripur — a truck depot near the port of Karachi — piled with everything from engine parts to grain and headed for the rural areas of Southern Pakistan. “Just like people want their houses and their clothes and themselves to look good,” he added.

The tradition of truck painting may have begun as early as the 1920s, when bus companies adorned their vehicles in an attempt to attract more passengers. But most artists and drivers simply say that as long as there have been trucks and buses in Pakistan, there have been people who decorated them.

People detail vehicles the world over, but Pakistani trucks take the art to another level. And while Peshawar in the north is known as the birthplace of the form, Karachi is home to truck artists considered to be among Pakistan’s finest.