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The truck artists of Karachi apply a splash of color to an otherwise bleak canvas.
"I’ve been doing this work since I was a kid," said Jamil Uddin, who’s been decorating and detailing trucks in Karachi for decades and goes by the pen name "Lucky."
He continued: "My father was a truck painter, too. He was one of the most famous truck painters in Pakistan. Pakistani people have grown up looking at these things so it's very common to them, but this is a very important part of indigenous Pakistani culture."
Religious symbolism, such as depictions of Islamabad’s dramatic Faisal Mosque and Mecca’s Kaa’ba, are popular decoration, as is the Arabic blessing Mashallah, meant to ward off any jealous evil eye attracted by the beauty of the truck.
Militarism makes an appearance in the form of the Pakistani flag, fighter planes and even nuclear missiles. Political leaders such as recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto as well as a tribal leaders sporting hand-painted Kalashnikovs can be seen gracing the backs of trucks that careen across the country, stacked high with precarious loads of rice sacks, chicken cages or sugar cane.
Poetry has also become woven into the designs of many trucks, and the verses sprinkled across the bumpers and tailgates on the road include melancholic lines such as, “This truck is my spaceship and I am its lonely occupant.”
And trucking here is a lonely and even dangerous job. Rahid marks off the threats to truckers on his large dusty fingers while overseeing the loading of the day’s cargo: Kidnapping (for ransom and cargo) in the south, attacks on suspected NATO and relief supplies in the north and the threat of accidents anywhere in-between (despite black swags draped across trucks in a superstitious effort to prevent them).
Increasing conflict in parts of Pakistan, alongside the global recession, has led to a slowdown in trucking, and Rahid admits that business hasn’t been great, though it hasn’t stopped him from decorating his eight trucks to the tune of about $1,250 apiece, saying “In Pakistan, it’s what we do.”
But despite Rahid’s commitment to decorating his trucks, Lucky says that artists are suffering, and his workshop has fallen silent in the last few years.
“There is a decline in business because of the bad economy,” he says gesturing towards his sparsely populated workshop, where a team of artists should be stamping elaborate designs into metal and painstakingly applying baroque glass mosaics to truck doors. “But the biggest threat for us is the loss of peace and the insecurity, you can’t expect any art to take place when there is no peace.”
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