The 2018 SHINE Mural Festival doesn’t officially begin until Saturday, but one artist – arguably the most well-known of this year’s lineup – is already hard at work.
Under a billowing white canopy, on the front patio of the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, you’ll find a man and a car. The automobile, a 2009 Toyota Prius owned by local resident Mitzi Gordon, was pure white as of Thursday morning.
The man is Haider Ali, a native of Karachi, Pakistan, and a legend among those who follow not only public art but the unique cultural constitution of Southern Asia.
Ali, 38, is the most famous truck artist in the world, and he’s in town to create a one-of-a-kind work of art – in oils – on that four-wheeled canvas. Weather permitting, he’ll finish the work sometime Saturday.
“Truck art,” Ali says through an interpreter, “is the only art form in Pakistan. We do calligraphic murals, but they’re more for advertising purposes.” Along with commercial and private trucks, the artists paint buses and bikes – and rickshaws, the most common form of public transportation in the country.
From his father, Ali learned the art of turning everyday vehicles into elaborate designs of floral and paisley, of neo-psychedelic swirls, whirlpools of color, human portraits, birds, animals and calligraphy. Some have small chains and pendants attached to the bumpers, which led American military personnel to refer to them as “jingle trucks.”
No two designs are exactly the same.
“Birds are a symbol of beauty, and the partridge is the national bird of Pakistan,” Ali explains. “And the peacock, being the bird of paradise, so to speak, is kind of symbolic. When I am in the United States, I look for a particular bird of that state, and I incorporate that into my design.”
Mitzi Gordon’s Prius, he adds, will have birds of Florida, and of Pakistan, along with the official flags for both. After that, he’ll paint whatever comes to mind.
Many of the words and phrases he uses on vehicles in his homeland are meant to inspire patience – and a good laugh – in heavy city traffic.
They are, he says, “Words that make you feel good when you read them. In Pakistan, say you’re in a car, and you’re following a rickshaw or a truck – you will see ‘KEEP YOUR DISTANCE, OTHERWISE YOU WILL FALL IN LOVE.’ Sometimes there are full phrases of poetry; sometimes there are two or three words in the cultural context. But they’re always lighthearted: ‘LOOK AT ME, BUT WITH LOVE.’”
Ali first came to the United States in 2002, at the behest of the Smithsonian Institute. They even had an authentic Pakistani truck freighted over for him to paint. “That,” he says pointedly, “was when I decided that painting a truck was not the end of the game for me. That I had a longer journey, and a bigger purpose.”
Since then, he’s been here numerous times, always creating in public, like he’s doing for SHINE. And he sees himself not so much as an ambassador for an art form, but as something of a bridge between Pakistan and the United States.
“When I come here, I have seen no difference in the people in the U.S. versus the people in Pakistan,” he explains. “They’re as hospitable here as in Pakistan; we have the impression, culturally, that we are very hospitable.
“So when I go back, I try to spread understanding about the other side. Say somebody’s unhappy with Trump, politically speaking … I tell them it has nothing to do with Trump. People are completely different, and politics is completely different.”
Stay tuned for more on SHINE 2018.