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.

"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.” 

Sarah Stuteville, a journalist with the Common Language Project, traveled to Pakistan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Pakistan:

Hope for Pakistan's child workers

News of Pakistan's doom greatly exaggerated

Caught in Pakistan's crossfire

The fate of the Kalasha

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