Jeepneys in jeopardy: how Duterte's plan for public transport affects the Philippines' artists

Plans to modernise public utility vehicles in the Philippines mean the artists who hand-paint jeepneys are being left behind

Jeepneys are a subject that has divided the Philippines: almost as much as President Rodrigo Duterte's suggestion of renaming the country Maharlika.

These vehicles – the name of which is likely a portmanteau of the words "jeep" and "jitney" – were originally fashioned out of US military jeeps left over from the Second World War. Since then, the colourful, hand-painted vans, dubbed "King of the Road", have become as synonymous with Filipino culture as black cabs are to London and gondolas are to Venice. In fact, French fashion house Christian Louboutin even released a jeepney-themed handbag collection last year, made with hand-­woven fabric indigenous to the Philippines. Embroidered on the front of the Manilacaba multi-pattern totes were the words "CL love Manila"; colourful jeepneys were sewn into the inner lining, with signage sporting common phrases such as "Chic Makati" and "No Selfies!".

The manufacture of these gas-guzzlers has been big business in the Philippines since they became a popular and inexpensive way of re-establishing a public transport network after the war. A healthy form of self-expression rose with them; the culture of jeepney folk art began to evolve in the mid-1940s. Jeepney manufacturers commonly employed teams of artists to hand-paint and decorate the exteriors, while private operators adorned their own.

The evolution of jeepney folk art

Splashes of colour were added to monochromatic bodies; fenders were replaced with grille scoops; stainless-steel cut-outs were added alongside accessories that ranged from ornaments on the hood to custom-made hub caps. Hand-painted murals became commonplace, as artists depicted everything from their own family members to religious icons and popular characters from their favourite movies or anime series. More and more rickety, exotically painted, smoke-belching jeepneys navigated the Philippines' increasingly congested streets, sporting witty slogans written in any of the country's 100-plus languages and dialects, alongside caricatures, crazy patterns and any manner of pop culture references. It became a globally recognised cultural tradition of the Philippines and, yet, like Marmite, jeepneys are divisive: some people love them, while others hate them.

Those firmly in the first camp appreciate how the vehicles have provided countless drivers – and artists – with work since the '40s. Their cost-effectiveness is undeniable, too – with trips at eight or nine Philippine pesos (50 fils) a pop, depending on whether you're in a city or a province. This form of public transportation has served the country's mass of minimum-wage workers well over the years. Naysayers, on the other hand, lament the serious issue of traffic congestion, particularly in Metro Manila, as well as rising air pollution, the growing number of road accidents and on-board overcrowding (they can carry about 13 passengers, although operators usually pack in far more people).

Modernising public transport in the Philippines

The government's Public Utility Vehicle Modernisation Programme (PUVMP), which was revealed in 2017, was meant to fix all that, though. President Duterte announced older public utility jeepneys would be phased out and modernised by 2020. But this caused a rift in society, with transport union groups up in arms about the move. "The immediate effect is the massacre of livelihoods of an estimated 250,000 small jeepney operators and almost 600,000 jeepney drivers," George San Mateo, head of transport group Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operator Nationwide (Piston), told the South China Morning Post.

Mateo and fellow members of Piston have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the PUVMP over the past two years, organising protests and strikes, some of which have seen San Mateo arrested. "Jeepneys were supposed to be a stopgap measure," Steve Ranjo, Piston's secretary general, told the Los ­Angeles Times. "The government abdicated their job providing transport as a public service. Trains should be the backbone of a transportation system, but they're focusing on small-capacity vehicles like ours. They're not interested in mass transportation. They're interested in business."

While the government continues to insist the programme is not intended to alienate lower-income jeepney operators, and is introducing financing schemes because the modernised vehicles are much more expensive than older iterations, Mateo claims this isn’t enough. He describes the plans and support as “very minuscule, very puny”: original jeepneys cost about 700,000 Philippine pesos, while the new vehicles cost up to 1.8 million Philippine pesos, and about 80,000 Philippine pesos is to be subsidised. As drivers commonly earn an average of about 500 to 600 Philippine pesos for two days of work, to raise the capital to invest in the new vehicles is, for many smaller operators, out of the question.

Meet the artists

This, unsurprisingly, has meant the tradition of jeepney folk art has begun to fizzle out, too. The successor vehicles are being touted as a big improvement on the older models that have traditionally ploughed the streets of the Philippines; they have proper doors, seats for everyone, air-conditioning and standing room. But their mass production will ensure identikit designs, dampening the creative spirits of the artists who have hand-painted and airbrushed the exteriors for years, not to mention making the roads a little less colourful. As the number of local operators continues to decline, many artists are struggling.

Bernardo "Nards" de la Cruz, 65, is one of the pioneers of the jeepney design movement. He started turning these utilised American military vehicles into moving canvasses back in the '60s, beginning as a designer at the now-defunct Francisco ­Motors, before moving to San Pablo, ­Laguna, to work for Armak Motors ­Corporation. De la Cruz has made a successful living out of his chosen profession, having raised four children on the wages he has earned over the years, and yet, now, he's the last painter left at one of the biggest and oldest jeepney manufacturers in the country, Sarao Motors in Las Pinas, Metro Manila.

He remembers the heyday, back in the '60s and '70s, when he would make about 1,500 Philippine pesos to work on a 7,000 Philippine pesos Sarap jeepney. Now, he tells The National he has seen a serious decline in orders, and he bemoans the dying art of jeepney design.

He continues to work on them, but has had to take on a couple of side hustles: he works on commissions, and makes storefront signs. And, while he’s happy his country is committed to progress and saving the environment, he disagrees with what he calls the PUVMP’s “hidden agendas”, such as bringing in foreign corporations to do business in the Philippines as local companies go bankrupt.

De la Cruz says he can survive – "as long as there is commissioned work, I will still put some food on the table," he says – but other artists may not be as fortunate. Jeepney sign-board painter Dolly Paberecio, 28, for one, is struggling to make ends meet. She and her husband, who run a shop in Manila together, have had to start taking any job they can find. On good days, they sell four to five sign-boards, each costing about 25 Philippine pesos. On bad days, the orders drop to two, maybe three. With a daughter about to turn three years old, Paberecio is keen to find other work. On the PUVMP she certainly doesn't mince her words: "If that's what the government wants, so be it," she tells The National. "If they want many people to starve, then I guess people will resort to other things."

Airbrush artist Mark Binamira, 30, is also finding it difficult to adjust to this brave new jeepney market. He used to work full-time for Morales Motors – a manufacturing company known for its hyper-stylised jeepneys popular among the youth thanks to their radical designs – but now, since orders are few and far between, he only goes in once or twice a week. The rest of the time he freelances, working on tricycles (another popular form of transportation in the Philippines), trucks and painting houses. He, like de la Cruz, is working to adapt. "It is what it is," he says. "We move on to where we can to survive."

It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue of the PUVMP, the demise of jeepney folk art also tells another classic present-day tale: of tradition being trumped by modernity and technological advancement. And, as usual, those caught in the middle, are being left behind.