KARACHI: Haider Ali dabs a brush with an iridescent glob of paint and gets to work on a pair of sparkling white trainers — his latest canvas for a carnival of colour celebrating Pakistani culture.
Pakistan’s lorries are renowned for “truck art”: candy-coloured murals depicting South Asian animals, celebrities and religious icons.
The tradition transforms the highways and cities into kaleidoscopic processions.
And now Ali — a veteran truck artist — has transposed the painting onto sneakers.
“A client came to me from the US asking me to paint shoes,” he explained.
“I told him an exorbitant fee to discourage him but he agreed, so I decided to get on with it.”
He labours on each pair for up to four days, charging select clients $400 for a set featuring bespoke patterns and motifs.
Since he started painting trainers in January, he has dispatched eight pairs — to places in Pakistan and abroad — with new orders arriving every four days after a surge of social media interest.
“The ideas keep coming to me,” the 42-year-old mused.
“It’s in human nature to decorate ourselves and the things around us.” Cross-legged in his Karachi rooftop studio, he flips a pair of high-top Nikes to reveal the image of a luminous pink hawk and a gazing yellow eye, framed by hypnotic bulbous fringes.
Another pair ready for shipping bears a shimmering peacock.
‘In the zone’
Some say the practice of adorning trucks began in the 1940s when hauliers crafted vibrant logos communicating their brand identity to a largely illiterate public.
Others claim the artistic one-upmanship began with bus drivers competing to lure passengers.
Today, the trade is one of Pakistan’s most famous cultural exports, cutting against the country’s more austere reputation for social conservatism.
Ali comes from a family of truck artists, who eked out a living at the roadside yards where drivers eagerly surrender slim pay packets to decorate their vehicles.
Strolling through the Yusuf Goth truck yard, his tinted glasses and slight swagger lend him an air of celebrity.
“I get in the zone when I feel a connection to the art,” he said. “If I pause, the ideas stop flowing.”
He came to fame outside Pakistan when his work was exhibited at the US Smithsonian Museum in 2002, helping him hone a reputation as an international ambassador for truck art.
He has applied his craft to a plane, a VW Beetle, and even a woman’s body at the Burning Man festival in the United States.
Ali’s cottage industry offers numerous advantages. He is stowed away from the din of the roadside yards, and his fashion clients give him full creative freedom, unlike truck drivers who peer over his shoulder.
But as with trucks, the decoration on shoes will not last forever.
After three or four years, it will chafe, crack and fade — offering a fresh canvas for yet more artwork.