Philippine jeepneys nearing end of a colorful road
In a dusty workshop in the town of Angono, just outside Manila, an artist glances up at a poster from the Disney animation “Tangled.”
He compares it with the image of the film's strong-jawed hero, which he is airbrushing onto the side of an old jeepney.
The artwork has been commissioned by the owner of the jeepney, and will be a brash, ostentatious statement that he no doubt hopes will mark his vehicle out from every other.
“This will be finished later today,” says Damaso Reyes, owner of Dasoy Motors, the small auto workshop charged with completing the design.
Reyes will make a small profit for his work. For some, however, the scene here is a sign of the decay that is affecting Filipino jeepney art.
Disney characters and U.S. flags are now the commonplace stars of these colorful buses, when once they used to be mountains, rivers and other natural Filipino characteristics.
Additionally, from being one of the most enduring and endearing legacies from the time the U.S. Army spent in the Philippines during World War II, jeepneys are now in danger of losing their artistry altogether, as owners prioritize finance over flourish.
Virgilio Parcellano, a jeepney owner, says profit now comes before art.
“The truth is, it’s not about how beautiful your jeep is," he says. "These days it’s more of a race to get as many passengers as you can."
Parcellano points out that despite his love for his jeepney -- it has six antennae and two horns on its hood, the names of his children emblazoned on the windshield and fierce characters painted on the sides -- the design does little to raise the day’s earnings.
Prettifying a jeepney costs up to 100,000 pesos (US$2,370), no small change for an owner who is earning around 7.5 pesos per passenger. As a result, many jeepney owners are saving that expense.
Take Alfredo Reyes (not his real name). His jeepney is jarringly plain, just daubed with a splash of paint and his route indicated on the sides.
“People are being thrifty,” he says. “I’d rather save the money. This is why you see jeepneys that are ordinary, simply galvanized.”
He explains that his jeepney has been constructed and is owned (he's just the driver) by a new breed of micro-entrepreneurs.
“This kind is made by the Igorots," he explains. "They used to be drivers who saved their earnings and now assemble jeepneys.”
He is referring to natives of the mountainous northern province of Ifugao, who have learned the trade but not the art.
So now Manila’s streets are filled with naked metal carriages, packed with passengers but lacking the audacious designs of their predecessors.
Western design infiltrates
Even where jeepney design still exists, it's now heavy with Western influences, like Disney’s “Tangled,” American flags, F1 logos and Western superheroes.
“You could see the individual brush strokes on past pieces -- it felt local,” says Paul Catiang, a regular Manila jeepney passenger. “These days, I see reproductions of movie posters from abroad and cringe. I feel that the jeepney art I grew up with was more original.”
“When people started getting access to the Internet, they began printing different designs,” adds Damaso Reyes.
This fondness for foreign culture is nothing new to Filipinos. The United States didn’t just bequeath its army jeeps to the Philippines, it also introduced Hollywood and a love of show business.
It's the way that these modern, Western icons are forced to sit alongside traditional symbols that some Filipinos do not appreciate.
“The image of Jesus is usually present, especially if the owner is Catholic," explains Reyes. "For them, it is assurance of divine guidance.
"The strangest request we had was a black jeep decorated with images of demons. And bizarrely, on the door, we also had to paint an image of Jesus Christ.”
“Jeepney art is a dying art,” complains Zarah Dominguez, a regular jeepney passenger. “A decorated jeepney gives me the impression that the owner takes care of his jeep and values it more than just as a source of income. He's making a declaration that ‘This jeep is mine.’”
This romantic ideal of the jeepney is one many Filipinos cherish. Take a closer look at the bare, galvanized carriers, for instance, and amidst the blur of gray metal you can still occasionally spot a splash of color or a small sticker.
Subtlety, however, is hardly what jeepneys are about, or why people love them.
More than buses
For decades, countless nameless artists have used the jeepney as a canvas.
Left behind by the U.S. Army after World War II, they were adopted by enterprising Filipinos who turned them into public utility vehicles.
While they remain one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get around Manila and the Philippines -- they can access many inner-city roads that are off-limits to buses -- they will also remain part of local life.
But what if the loss of color from these characterful transports of delight that are a hallmark of the capital reflects something deeper altogether, such as a loss of Filipino character?
Riding in a jeepney can be a thrilling experience. Passengers often hang half out of the bus on rails at the back or sometimes sit on the roof.
They zigzag on roads like they own them: a blur of color and metal. They cause traffic jams as they stop arbitrarily to let passengers on or off.
Their artwork dresses a chunky piece of metal with unmistakable personality.
If that disappears, so might the thrill of riding in these vehicles, that have historically been so much more than people carriers.