Parked trucks choke the side streets off the main road, their drivers napping in cabs or on mats they’ve spread out on the ground. Cigarettes protrude from toothless, smiling mouths. This is Jalan Kargo Permai: an industrial section of the north Denpasar urban sprawl and the final destination for truckers bringing their cargo from Indonesian island of Java into Bali.
The truckers are a ragtag group. Most are from east Javan cities like Blitar and Batu Malang. They’re self-organized into gangs ranging in size from a handful to a few dozen drivers. Each gang has it’s own name, truck decoration style, and informal code of conduct. One gang is called Putri Yolanda in honor of the leader’s girlfriend. Another calls itself Anak Jalanan (Javanese for “Street Kids”).
The truckers transport anything and everything they’re paid to, from flowers, to fruits, to spring mattresses, to pure-bred German Shepherds worth 50 million rupiah. They usually drive solo, but sometimes in pairs. The haul from Java to Bali takes approximately twenty-four hours. When they get tired on the road, they drink coffee or pull over and take a nap. Some use shabu to stay alert, but most rely only on coffee and a never ending chain of Sampoernas.
If you’ve spent any time in Bali or Java, odds are you’ve seen one of these trucks with the wild art painted on its sides and mud flaps. The aesthetic of these truck murals is loud in its unabashed display of personality. Equally brash are the statements drivers have painted on their vehicles. Statements like “Papa Pulang, Mama Basah” (translation: “Daddy’s home, mommy’s wet”) wouldn’t be permitted in the litigatory, politically correct cultural climate of the West. Someone would get offended and a truck company might get sued. Thankfully, Indonesia has a more laissez-faire attitude toward such forms of self-expression.
The truck-side murals are usually strange, sometimes lewd, and always reflective of the driver’s particular tastes. There are usually headlines painted alongside the art with humorous and cryptic phrases in English or Javanese. Oftentimes the name of the gang the driver is a part of will be emblazoned somewhere on the truck’s side or rear. The handwritten font further emphasizes the truck’s character. The overall message is that these drivers exercise their own creative license. Flabby , a nickname given to a driver in the Putri Yolanda game, puts it this way: “Beautiful words aren’t only for musicians and poets. We truck drivers can make them too. The images we put on the truck is how we express ourselves.” Express themselves they do–to the delight of all who glimpse these works of art on wheels.
Just how this expression is accomplished is at the unique discretion of each driver, but common themes do emerge. One of the most ubiquitous of these tropes is the pin-up girl. The practice makes sense if you stop to think about it. Driving a truck demands many days away from home, and keeping a symbol of female companion along with you on the journey may help to assuage at least some of loneliness’s acute pangs. Those for whom a symbol alone won’t suffice seek solace in the arms of the comfort women of Jl Danau Tempe, the go-to neighborhood for prostitution in Bali, located in the otherwise quiet resort district of Sanur. “The girls on Danau Tempe are pretty. They’re from Bandung—beautiful, light-skinned girls” says Flabby.
Infrequent trips to the karaoke bars in Sanur provide little respite for what is surely a hard, thankless job. When there is work available, these drivers work long hours for little pay. The drivers in Yolanda Putri make half a million rupiah per trip (~$40 USD). Like most of the developing world, they arrived at their vocation less by choice than by lack of an alternative. Most are high school dropouts who, lacking an education, began driving for the steady, if meager, source of income. Flabby is a typical representation of this pattern. He dropped out of high school ten years ago and began driving trucks as a way to make money. He began as an apprentice, riding in the cab of a truck with another driver, and now drives his own truck solo. Flabby says he doesn’t visit the brothels because he has a girlfriend waiting for him in Java. Her name is emblazoned in stickers on the side of his truck, carefully positioned along with about half a dozen hello kitty stickers.
Not all the trucks have murals. Flabby spent four million rupiah tricking out his Hello Kitty truck. Not every driver can afford such costs. For the ones who can, they pay artists in Java to paint what they want. “Young drivers love to follow the trend. We love to pimp out our trucks” says Shorty, leader of the Yolanda Putri gang. Shorty and his crew all have trucks decorated in the “new school” style: bright and crisp stencils and sticker graphics. This is in contrast to the hand-painted “old school” style. Mew trends in truck decoration emerge and spread. “The trend now is half and half. The paint job on the left side of the truck is different from the paint job on the right.”
For all the swagger they display on their trucks, these guys are humble, hard-working individuals. They do what they can with what they’ve been given, and they do so with flare. We sincerely hope Shorty, Yolanda Putri, and the rest of the Javanese keep getting jobs, and keep alive the practice of decorating their trucks with such wild style.