Photocopies of the Real Thing

Just as phool patti truck art became revered in Pakistan after an American anthropologist "discovered" it, Pakistani car decals are a new art form, waiting to be found.

Meher Ahmad

March 11, 2019

Photocopies of the Real Thing
Masha Allah in Goosebumps font

Haider Ali smokes a cigarette as he guides me through the narrow streets in Karachi’s downtown Garden market. We pass thousands of assembled and decorated trucks. He gestures to stalls where drivers can choose any number of attachments for their long-haul trucks, nearly all made by hand with hammered metal, paint, and adhesive decal sheets. Ali, one of the most famous truck art painters in Pakistan, is the living embodiment of the rise of truck art from a lowly craft to a known art form.

Since coming back to Pakistan a few years ago, I’ve observed that a lot of the Midwest pop culture I grew up with is replicated here, but with a twist. One manifestation is car decals, which have become ubiquitous in Pakistan. In the Midwest, most families have decals on their cars — stickers with their university logos or even stick figures of their family. Here, car decals display family or caste names and a “Mashallah” or “Allahu Akbar” for good measure. The decals are in fonts you can’t ignore — like the drippy Goosebumps font — and come in unique phrases like “Meri Jaan” (my heart) or “I am married please don’t disturb me.”

As I drove in Pakistan, I found myself falling into the pattern of looking for the most outlandish stickers to distract me from the endless traffic jams and fumes. I began snapping pictures and sharing them on social media. I wasn’t the only one — an enterprising Pakistani had made an anonymous Instagram called The Rear Truth, compiling some of the best rearview sticker art.  

What was going on, I thought. Why the fascination with decals?