The Filipino commuter is surely familiar with this scene. A barely perceivable queue forms beside a busy highway during the late afternoon rush hour. Squeaking shoes thump like the heartbeats of exhausted passengers as their sweat drips to the concrete sidewalk. After a series of ear-piercing honks, a metal contraption materializes from a swath of black smoke: the proud Filipino jeepney, a product of human ingenuity and the creative Filipino spirit.
Dominick Lim (IV, BSA) relishes the palpable “sense of community” that he gets from riding a jeepney. As the vehicle travels from one point to another, he studies the many faces of the people he encounters in his commute. “[To you], that might be the stop [nearest to your] school. But to another person, it is where they set up [shop] to provide for their family,” he reflects.
What is now an integral mode of Filipino public transportation emerged after a period of unrest. The jeepney was originally created from scrap parts of Willys jeeps Americans left after World War II, which were originally used to carry artillery. Soon enough, many Filipinos established localized versions of the vehicle, including Leonardo S. Sarao who established Sarao Motors in 1953. His son and current Sarao Motors Production Manager Edgardo Sarao shares, “[Filipinos] fell in love with [the jeepney]…They tinkered with it, customized [it], and it became popular.”
The modifications Filipinos made to the jeepney include the designs that artists create for the vehicle’s exterior. From gorgeous portraits to abstract figures, artist Donald Grafil stresses that jeepney art “[adds] an excitement…to riders and passengers…[kaya] nagiging makulay ang daan.” But despite jeepney art’s massive impact, it is in grave danger. As the art form demonstrates our vibrant culture, Grafil and Sarao go all out to preserve the future of this cultural touchstone.
(That’s why it adds color to our streets.)
Art on wheels
The beginnings of jeepney art are as eccentric as they are humble. From the ruins of war, the celebratory hues bouncing off these vehicles never fail to bring joy to innocent bystanders. Though similar to Pakistani truck art, which also uses extravagant designs for the vehicle’s exterior, jeepney art is distinctly rooted in the Filipino experience. Sarao notes, “Makita niyo yung pagka-fiesta feeling [ng jeepney art]. Colorful dahil…lahat ng primary color lumalabas diyan.” Heavily inspired by Pinoy folklore, religion, and culture, jeepney art’s eclectic bodywork evokes the carefree, limitless style that is more akin to Filipino murals.
(You can feel the fiesta vibe in the jeepney art. They are colorful due to their heavy use of primary colors.)
However, Grafil—who is more experienced with painting murals—admits that jeepney art is more challenging due to the difference in canvas. “[While] the process is the same, mas mahirap ‘yung jeepney art kasi hindi pantay ‘yung pipinturahan,” he elaborates. Unlike mural art, jeepney art requires applying paint onto structured pieces of galvanized metal; thus, the uneven facade makes precision much harder to nail.
(Jeepney art is more difficult because the surface to be painted isn’t flat.)
Nonetheless, jeepney art epitomizes a Filipino’s innate urge for self-expression. For Sarao, it’s not limited to jeepney artists; it’s also evident among those who paint on boats, kalesas, and even private vehicles. “Makikita mo merong mga mag-gagayak na mga outrageous. Nasa kultura natin ‘yung mag-gayak ng mga magagarbo,” he reminds.
(There are many outrageous, eccentric designers. It is in our culture to don proud and pompous decor.)
Similarly, Grafil shares that his venture into jeepney art is rooted in honoring his Bicolano identity, “[Para sabihin nila] na ang Sorsoganon ay may angking talento.”
(I paint because I want to inspire others so they can tell that Sorsoganons are gifted.)
It is these meaningful and personal designs that resonate with Lim the most. His favorite jeepney art are those that utilize the names of family members as decals, which he presumes is a source of strength for the person behind the wheel. “[Jeepney art] reminds us to be more appreciative of our own families who tirelessly work to provide for our needs.”
Bumps on the road
Unfortunately, the jeepney’s colorful facades may soon disappear. Without any guidance on a smooth transition, the Jeepney Modernization Program aggressively champions the phaseout of traditional jeepneys in favor of electrically powered and environment-friendly models. While based on valid concerns about climate change, those in the jeepney industry are left without sufficient government support.
“Walang malinaw na details [on] what to do with [traditional jeepneys],” Sarao laments. “Parang iniwan lang kami sa gitna ng dagat.” As manufacturers have to endure increased prices and skyrocketing taxes to adapt to new government standards, the production manager worries that these adjustments are unrealistic, especially considering how limited jeepney drivers’ earnings are.
(There are no clear details on what to do. It’s like we were left at sea.)
With such a situation, jeepney artists are also left in limbo. Due to reduced production of traditional jeepneys, Sarao explains, “[Jeepney artists] go for the billboards; they do murals. Naghahanap sila ng alternative projects to work on para mabuhay.” He shares that they even collaborate with Sarao Motors’ jeepney artists in doing interior architectural jeepney models, seen in their custom-made dine-in sets, restaurants, and even wedding cars.
(They search for alternative projects to earn a living.)
Unfortunately, these side projects are few and far between. This is why Sarao believes that jeepney art is bound to evolve. “Ang [designs na] makikita mo sa mga F1 racing car, ‘yun minsan ang nilalagay nilang colors or design sa [jeepneys],” he shares.
(The designs that we see in F1 racing cars sometimes become the inspiration for colors and designs in jeepneys.)
Despite the opportunity for progress, both Grafil and Sarao believe that traditions should not be lost. The former compares jeepney art to carefully preserved artifacts, “Kung sa Egypt ini-execute nila ‘yung art sa mga tomb, sa Pilipinas naman ini-execute ‘yung art sa mga…jeepney.” Echoing the sentiment, Sarao believes that part of our identity will be lost when this art vanishes.
(If Egyptians placed their art on tombs, Filipinos do so on their vehicles, specifically on jeepneys. )
To a new destination
Even with the issues they face today, Sarao is cautiously optimistic about the future of jeepneys, largely due to their art. “Just like the kalesa…‘yung mga [jeepney art na] iconic folk art natin…hindi mawawala ‘yan,” he shares.
(Jeepney art, which is an iconic folk art, will not disappear.)
Similarly, Grafil encourages everyone to grab the opportunity to learn how to make art on jeepneys, “Bihira po kasi ‘yung nagpa-paint sa jeepney, kaya ‘wag na dapat mag-think twice.” For prospective jeepney artists, he ensures that love, appreciation, and “always [putting your] heart in making it” will go a long way.
(It is a rare profession so don’t think twice.)
Above all, it’s important that even the most minuscule stroke or detail “has meaning, and the art itself has a story to tell,” Grafil stresses. Through unique combinations of color, style, and subject, jeepney art symbolizes the innovations that can be produced with some metal scraps and paint. Sarao opines that jeepney art visually represents Filipino resourcefulness that was honed throughout history. “From the ashes of war, naka-survive tayo sa period na ‘yun. We resurrected war-torn vehicles na iniwan ng mga Amerikano,” he declares.
(We survived that period. We resurrected war-torn vehicles that the Americans left.)
Jeepney art is a representation of our national identity’s strength. With its vibrant colors that stand out amid an air of city pollution, Sarao encapsulates, “Naging simbolo [ang jeepney art ng Filipinos] being resilient, imaginative, and creative.”
(Jeepney art became a symbol of Filipino resiliency, imaginativeness, and creativity.)
Jeepneys may travel far and long distances, but rest assured, its colorful facade is here to stay—if we all put in the work to preserve it.