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Back from the dead: Philippines' jeepneys get a makeover
One fan attempts to revive Manila's aging road warriors at the recent Jeepney Arts Festival
On a recent afternoon in the busy commercial district of Metro Manila, a parade of 50 jeepneys debuted their new skins.
Portraying vivid scenes and pictures in brightly painted, audacious hues, they were a stark contrast to what’s been seen on the streets of late -- bare metal carriages, a symptom of budget constraints and economic hardships that, out of necessity, slowly came to replace the old, colorfully decorated jeepneys famed around the world.
The parade was the culminating event of Manila's first Jeepney Arts Festival.
For three days, some 150 artists gathered under tents outside the Manila Mall of Asia to work on the parked jeepneys, bare and bland, relinquished by their owners and drivers.
The organizer, business woman Clang Garcia, called them in for a mission: to bring the cultural icon back to its former glory, complete with its notoriety of colors, mismatched images, and anything-goes artistic editorials.
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The problem with jeepneys
Once the most celebrated vehicle on the streets, the jeepney is now regarded as a has-been object of kitsch.
Its fall from grace goes beyond its toned-down appearance. The jeepney experience is rarely accused of being a smooth, comfortable ride.
Part of the Jeepney Arts Festival’s program was to orient participating drivers on social conduct and good manners.
“Most of us have a molded idea about jeepney drivers: rude, boorish, ill-mannered,” Garcia posits, admitting that she wasn’t looking forward to meeting the drivers when the project began.
It completely took Garcia by surprise to discover that most jeepney drivers are actually pretty nice guys -- when pried from behind the wheel, at least.
Besides the drivers' crash course on social graces, the jeepneys themselves had to be upgraded in line with modern motoring standards too. To address commuter complaints about pollution, the vehicles need to pass smoke emission testing before they could be given artistic makeovers.
This's not to say that the drivers and operators didn't have grievances. What about their daily earnings for the festival days, they asked? At the end of the day, the reckless driving and passenger cramming all means one thing: money to feed their family back home.
Garcia promised to shoulder the wages. And for that she needed support.
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A matter of relevance
With all the fuss people make about the jeepney -- its status as an icon and the nostalgia it carries with it -- public interest in the festival was slow to gain traction.
Garcia is not your usual advocate. She’s a business woman whose main interest has been running a hop-on hop-off tourism service using custom-made giant jeepneys.
The work to stage the festival proved to be a frustrating and humbling experience; Garcia faced several road blocks as she pushed to “rehabilitate the jeepney."
Almost too late, things fell into place: paint companies provided the materials needed. Solicitations came in. Enough artists signed up. Media began paying attention. The tourism department gave its seal of approval.
Others not in the original plan wanted part of the action. Industrial designers shared ideas for creating double-decker jeepneys to help solve the problem of traffic congestion and proposed transforming the diesel-fueled jeepneys to electric ones.
Environmental companies gave their two cents too, making a case for LPG as a sustainable green option.
This cocktail of notions brought with it many questions: Should the jeepney be revived or should it be remodeled completely? Maybe it’s not that the jeepney culture is dying but that there is a need to make it more relevant. Whose idea is better?
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Reinterpreting jeepney art
Many of the young artists who participated in the festival had never seen the old style of jeepneys with their own eyes.
Artist Lugtu and his classmates were inspired by a romanticized notion of the jeepney’s regality. They chose to highlight Filipino heritage: the Pintados, the aboriginal tradition of tattooing in some parts of the country.
Some artists transformed the jeepneys into capsules of cultural insights: the mythical and evil aswang -- a Pinoy vampire -- haunts one, the almost-forgotten Filipino writing script, Baybayin, wraps around another.
Many artists took the tourism theme more traditionally: surfers on waves, local marine creatures, the Taal Volcano surrounded by a lake, flamboyant fiesta images, traditional architecture, folk dances, and women in cultural garb. Modern aesthetics like pop art and graffiti also made their mark, some with bold, controversial visions.
One jeepney, for instance, was the scene of catastrophes, or what the artists dubbed as “Delubyo” (deluge). On one side the perfectly-coned Mayon Volcano is exploding, on the other side the traditional bahay na bato (house of stone) is being hit by lightning.
Zap Zapanta and Jano Gonzales, from the art cooperative Gerilya, explained that the concept actually revolves around beauty and resilience.
“No matter what happens, [Filipino scenery] remains beautiful.”
Carlo Ramirez, an artist from the province of Bulacan, highlighted resilience as well. Painting jeepneys on his jeepney, he pointed out, “The jeepney is like the Filipino. No matter what calamities, problems, or trials we face, we remain standing. Have you ever seen a jeepney break down, for example, when streets get flooded? Maybe cars and buses, but the jeepney will just cross it.”
Is this the sign of the return of the former Kings of the Road? Fifty beautiful jeepneys out of thousands of neglected ones seem like a drop in the bucket.
For Reynaldo Flores, a taho vendor who stopped to watch the painting proceedings, it’s a good start. He predicted, “A lot of people will ride these jeepneys. They look like new again.”
Emboldened by positive reviews, Garcia is ready to dream bigger. Maybe next year, she says, the festival can go nationwide.