Postcard from Peshawar: How lorry art is adapting to keep Pakistani heritage alive

From roadside workshops to small painted items, lorry artists are evolving ways to showcase their work

Truck artist Nisar Khan painting a lorry along the Ring Road in Peshawar, Pakistan. Muhammad Shahid for The National
Powered by automated translation

Lorry painting in Pakistan is more than an art. It is a dynamic representation of the nation’s culture.

On the sun-drenched, dusty roads of Pakistan, many artists, most of them with very little education, can be seen painting vibrant tales of decades-old Pakistani art.

Nisar Khan, 50, discovered his passion for lorry art in his twenties, which became a source of his family's livelihood.

The father of five works at a lorry terminal along the Ring Road in Peshawar's suburbs.

“We earn Rs6,000 ($21) for painting one truck,” Mr Nisar told The National.

“But the competition among artists sometimes forces us to settle for as low as Rs4000 ($14.03),” he added.

Mr Khan says showcasing such art on digital platforms has given his competitors an edge.

“I know many artists are nowadays using Facebook and have become famous. But I can’t even read or write. I often ask others to write something for me when I need to.”

Abdul Razzaq, another artist, is facing similar challenges.

“Demanding a fair wage becomes difficult when there’s always someone willing to take less,” he said.

“Normally, we paint two to three trucks a week to earn livelihood for our families.”

Several lorry artists, struggling to make ends meet, have switched over to painting household items to earn more money.

When the world sees our creations, they don’t just see art; they get a glimpse into our way of life
Siyar Khan, truck artist

Siyar Khan, 40, initially started as a lorry artist. He now has his own brand, employing other artists who paint on various items – from crockery and purses to mobile phone covers, decorations, and toys.

“I used to receive Rs5000 ($59) for painting two sides of a truck with art. Now, I am selling a small [painted] teapot for the same amount.”

The Covid pandemic forced Mr Khan to adapt. The move has not only helped him keep an income during the lockdown but also offered him an opportunity to showcase his art internationally.

His creations have travelled to Washington, DC. Some of his smaller items are displayed in a hotel in the US.

“When the world sees our creations, they don’t just see art; they get a glimpse into our way of life.” Mr Khan said.

Samiullah Khan, a 38-year-old lorry artist, who learnt this art from his uncle, is both painting lorries and smaller items.

“I switched over to painting on scores of other items as it helped me earn more money; foreign tourists don’t visit truck terminals, but they see our art on smaller items displayed in markets in the city.”

Saeed Khan, tourist information co-ordinator of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cultural and Tourism Authority, told The National that the art has become a part of Pakistan's identity, particularly Peshawar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, as tourists often come to see it.

“During exhibitions of [state-run] Culture and Tourism Authority, we always allocate a stall for truck art,” Mr Saeed added.

Along with its artistic value, lorry art has previously been used for various campaigns.

In 2012, it was used to find missing children when anthropologist Samar Minallah Khan collaborated with Berger Paints on a campaign titled “Truck Art Child Finder” where eight children were found after portraits of missing children were painted on the side of vehicles.

Similarly, in March this year, the government used this art to promote the importance of polio vaccinations. Messages regarding polio, communicated in regional languages such as Pashto, were displayed on lorries in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a hotspot for poliovirus transmission.

Updated: December 01, 2023, 6:00 PM