A truck artist's assistant in Karachi shows off his painter's tray.
Credit: Mariya Karimjee

KARACHI, Pakistan— Here, trucks rule the road. Whether by blaring their horns at pedestrians or blocking a narrow street with an awkward parking job, Karachi's trucks always get the right of way.

But aside from being a nuisance to already harassed drivers, the trucks add a welcome splash of color to a remarkably bleak city. The images they bear, often whimsical, adorn every possible surface of the vehicle — usually in jelly-bean colors that wouldn't occur anywhere in nature.

A painted wooden panel on a British Bedford truck shows a bright flower.

It's unclear how the tradition of embellishing the vehicles got started, but it's now a coveted badge of status: a truck owner will save up thousands of dollars, if he can, to have a celebrated local artist paint his ride.

The system for choosing a design is similar to what you'd find in an American tattoo parlor: choose the series of images you'd like from a book, and the artist will then customize the final product. Because most truck drivers are from the country's northwest, the imagery often reflects what they miss most about home; eagles, pine trees and glacial rivers are common.

A colorful peacock prances on a water tanker's lower side panel. Peacocks, native to the Himalayas, are popular in Pakistan for their beauty.

A typically idyllic scene on the back of a water tanker. The writing on the eagle's neck is the artist's signature. The phrase above the mountains says "Abottabad Hero."

The trucks are owned by individual contractors. Some drive their own trucks, others hire drivers. When the US-led war in Afghanistan started, a lot of truckers were able to make fast money taking supplies up north. That made financing the purchase of a truck easy, and many drivers bought their own vehicles as a result. 

The style of the painted trucks is distinct from that used for public minibuses, which are generally covered in hammered metal, painted, and adorned with strings of reflective tape.

Truck art is a nationwide phenomenon in Pakistan. But since the country's most-used port is in Karachi, the city is a home base for many large transport vehicles, and thus for the artists who paint them.

Mechanics, truck artists and their apprentices rest in the shade of a freshly painted container truck.

Decorated with ornate metal and reflective tape instead of technicolor landscape paintings, minibuses in Pakistan are exempt from the most colorful adornments characteristic of other large vehicles.

On Thursday, despite the 112-degree heat, Karachi's artists were calmly at work beautifying one of the city's flamboyant four-wheelers. In the video below, Hakim, who goes by one name and is known throughout Karachi as one of the best Urdu calligraphers for trucks, writes a popular slogan on the back of a water tanker. The phrase will say "Look, but with love," encouraging passersby to appreciate the artwork all over the vehicle.

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