Three Hours With a Pakistani Truck Painter

Art With the Power to Move -- at Highway Speed

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 30, 2007

TAXILA, Pakistan Just off the Grand Trunk Road, in an old auto yard filled with rusting axles and rotting trees, Arshad Mehmood is completing his latest masterpiece.

The canvas is propped up on oversize tires. The medium is oil on metal. The palette is ultra-bright -- bright enough to make an impression even at 70 miles per hour, the speed at which Mehmood's latest will be traveling when it joins his other masterpieces whooshing down the highway.

Michelangelo worked on chapel ceilings. Keith Haring had subway walls. Mehmood prefers trucks. Each day he splashes them with the intricate designs and elaborate color schemes that are the hallmarks of trucks throughout South Asia. By the time he is through, every inch must be covered with animals, mountains, flowers or whatever else Mehmood's mind can conjure.

The process begins with spray paint -- in this case, an alarming teal to mask the truck's dull gray skeleton. From there, Mehmood's apprentices lay down the basic pattern for the decorations, using tape and string dipped in chalk to mark off the canvas. Or canvases. Each side of the truck is divided into a dozen or more separate spaces, and each one will display a different image.

It is here, at 11 a.m. under an already merciless sun, that Mehmood's artistic vision takes over. He works without a net, painting directly onto the truck, with no sketches or stencils, in electric shades of green, orange and red. As he crouches down on creaky wooden scaffolding, the brush strokes come in quick, effortless dabs.

Mehmood has an overall concept for the truck when he begins his work, but many of the details get worked out as he goes along. In his inclinations, he resembles a Pakistani version of PBS's Bob Ross, planting happy little trees wherever he goes.

As Mehmood paints, the truck's owner chain-smokes and paces nervously in the dust. Sporting a dark brown mustache, a beige salwar-kameez and tan shoes, he looks at his kaleidoscopic truck and proclaims matter-of-factly, "I love colors."

He points to the truck's interior, which is hot pink and looks as though it has been smeared with bubble gum. "This," he says. "is my favorite color."

Soon enough, the hot pink will be shrouded in sand, cement or wheat, Raja Naseer's usual haul as he pilots his truck from the Khyber Pass in the west to Kashmir in the east, and back.

Naseer, 36, who has been driving trucks since he was in his teens, bought this particular truck a month and a half ago and has been rebuilding it from the ground up. The paint is the finishing touch, the last and most important element before he gets back to the road.

Other than requesting hot pink, Naseer did not give Mehmood many specific instructions. "I have asked him for leopards," he says. The rest is up to Mehmood.

Some say the decorations, especially the small bells that hang down from the sides and add a pleasant jingling sound to the trucks' normal belching and grunting, are meant to ward off evil spirits. Naseer dismisses that. The more beautiful the truck, he says, the more business he will get because his truck will stand out from the rest. "Even if I have to spend a lot of money, it must look very beautiful," he says. "Everyone should want to look at my truck."

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