The highways and city streets of Pakistan flow with colorful, ostentatiously painted trucks and buses, a tradition of intricate ornamentation that dates back centuries.
While it’s unlikely U.S. roads will be filled with these vivid vehicles any time soon, one Pakistani artist is starting to change that. And, if the attention his cars are receiving is any indication, there could be a large demand for his ornate artwork.
Ghulam Sarwar has been in the truck and bus painting business for 35 years in his native Pakistan, but he first gained attention in the U.S. in 2009, during an arts festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Abigail Adams-Greenway, an artist living in Bethesda, Maryland, had her car painted by Sarwar and said she first saw some of the furniture he’d painted at a market in Washington, DC.
“I was completely transfixed by it. I had to have a chair,” she said. “Later we bought a lot of furniture and other accessories. I call it the ‘Ghulamization’ of my house.”
Her collection of Sarwar’s art culminated when she commissioned him to paint her Kia Sorento.
“The basic patterns are the same as you’d see on a bus or truck in Pakistan,” said Sarwar.
But as trucks and buses are personalized in Pakistan, Adam-Greenway’s car is adorned with symbols that have great meaning to her. Her dogs make an appearance in two panels, and in the front, there is a painting of brightly colored lips, something for which she says she’s known.
The car gets a lot of attention.
“I get notes left on the car inquiring about it or thanking me for ‘blessing the environment with this car,” she said. “People leave their numbers asking who painted it.”
She said a few weeks ago, someone actually pulled up next to her and frantically motioned for her to pull over. They wanted to know about the car, where it was done and how they could get their car painted. Sarwar is now putting the finishing touches on it, the fourth vehicle he’s painted in the States so far.
“It’s a beautiful piece of folk art, and if something were to happen to me, I’d like to have it go to a museum,” Adams-Greenway said.
In Pakistan, the brightly colored trucks and buses are customized to show off where the vehicle and driver are from, or to pay homage to a famous movie star or a well-known military leader. Some trucks may be adorned with quotes from movies or verses from poems.
Sarwar, who is from Peshawar, said sometimes the slogans can be humorous such as “don’t cross me” or bragging, like “come beautify yourself in our village.”
But it’s not just about looks. The decorative painting creates a good mood for the drivers, says Sarwar.
“Basically the painting puts them in a spiritual space. It really helps the driver relax despite the stressful lifestyle,” he added.
But the real motivation behind elaborate bus painting is to stand apart from the crowd and attract more riders.
While Sarwar learned truck painting from his father, his early career took a detour during which he painted posters advertising upcoming movies. He says he did that for about 10 years.
But his workplace was near a large bus depot, and Sarwar wanted to bring his own style to the buses he saw every day.
Sarwar said it takes between seven to 10 days to finish a car, but added that sometimes he becomes so enthralled in the work, he can easily work 14 to 16 hours a day. The cost to paint a car in the U.S. ranges from $2,000 to $3,000 depending on the size of the car. In Pakistan, the average per capita income is around $1,200, according to the Pakistani Federal Bureau of Statistics.
Sarwar is returning to Pakistan in November after spending several months in the United States. He says he’s eager to come back.
“I didn’t know so many people would come ask me to paint cars,” he said.