The Telltale Art of the Jeepney

By , on June 4, 2013

A Jeepney by Sarao Motors. PHOTO by Don Taylor.
A Jeepney by Sarao Motors. PHOTO by Don Taylor.

“CONSIDER HONESTLY / this piece of storm / in our city’s entrails,” Gemino Abad’s famous “Jeepney” begins, inviting us to look at the familiar vehicle as we would a mirror. Described in the poem as an “incarnation of scrap,” but also a “genius of salvage,” the jeepney is proof of our knack for improvisation.

It’s almost like a Frankenstein project. The jeepney’s emergence was an innovation that we welcomed into our post-war transportation industry. We breathed a new form unto the corpses of the American Willy models and, later, scavenged for discarded Japanese components. We assembled these mechanical limbs and guts into a creature to serve our needs, a companion on the street.

But the jeepney also reflects Pinoy culture well beyond its testament to Pinoy ingenuity. Airbrushed designs, stickers, and accessories contribute to an overall look and feel that we call “jeepney art.”


Deprived of their adornments, this metal box wouldn’t be as eye-catching in the clutter of our thoroughfares. True: the screaming colors don’t make it all the more memorable, or remarkable—not always. But the decorations add character to the drab chrome-and-iron shell.

Decorating the body involves airbrushed artwork and pre-designed stickers, the latter cut into the dimensions and contours of the framework. The stickers are often digitally-rendered and of a limited set of motifs. Airbrushing offers infinite themes and versatility in style. The more intricate and extravagant pieces usually take weeks to conceptualize and actualize, as any careless mistake can delay the production.

Availing of a full-body paintjob is at least a 4,000-peso luxury for the common jeepney owner. But bleak living conditions have never successfully put a damper on the Filipino spirit, it seems. Many jeepney owners still insist on this expense, even if they might have to settle with the most generic or modest kind of design.

Telltale art

Jeepney art is largely for paporma purposes. Religious images, family portraits, nature, fantasy and heavy-metal motifs, near-naked women, fighter jets, Britney Spears—it’s art defined by no distinct set of aesthetics. Content and style subscribe to no expectations other than the maker’s or owner’s, thus entrusting each jeepney’s art to individual preferences.

But the spectrum of themes does have observable trends. Catholic artwork graces many of the jeepneys’ surfaces: the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the Holy Spirit, a dove. It’s a showcase of devotion for some, and clearly an example of the religious Filipino’s penchant for linking all aspects of his life to religion, sparing not even this humble, utilitarian vessel from being an expression of faith.

Similar to declaring their religious devotion, owners often have portraits of their children painted on the jeepney, typically on the driver’s door. Occasionally, the son or daughter is garbed in graduation attire, an accomplishment that the parent takes pride in.

Others yet indulge in an overkill of artwork and ornaments, appeasing the Pinoy aesthetic of horror vacui—fear of empty space. It is said to have come from our appetite for festivities. The profusion of colors and gewgaws on the jeepney makes the thing a moving visual feast.

Then there’s the platoon of chrome horses on its hood. The horses are status symbols for the drivers: jeepneys that flaunt an array of these quadrupeds are said to have remarkable “horsepower.” But the truth to this myth is that the horses stand tribute to the kalesa. It’s the recognized sigil of Sarao Motors, once the biggest manufacturer of jeepneys in the country. Founder Leonardo Sarao, one-time coachman, pioneered the industry by developing the first generation of jeepneys. He incorporated the horses on the jeepneys as a memento of his kalesa days of past.

But despite these trends, diversity and individuality still win in the end. The absence of any basic template allows for infinite variations and artistic freedom, so that no two jeepneys share the same appearance, no matter how basic or frugal the bodywork and furnishings. Some minor details always set each jeepney apart from the rest.

Cultural identity

Jeepneys have earned a staple role in mass transportation in over half a century. Though typically exalted by tourist brochures as “the king of the road” and a “work of art on wheels,” the reality in the streets doesn’t speak so universally of these attributes.

The jeepney’s appearance doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with quality, nor creativity. The decorations are classified as art. It may be kitschy, but what matters in the end is that the entirety of this urban presence embodies fragments of our history as a colonized nation—and even, to some extent, the resulting, divided identity of Filipino peoples.

It speaks of Filipinos as a derivative culture: an amalgam of recent trends overlaid on past traditions; of foreign influences adopting a local touch. It speaks of our standard of proletarian lifestyle, which we seem to have all but accepted as a permanent fate.

In this light, the jeepney may be the most ubiquitous image of the Filipino people, a more aptly-dubbed “visual story on wheels.” It’s a national trademark deserving of a museum display, but which we interact with in the daily grime of life.