Bernardo de la Cruz cast his eyes around the nearly silent workshop where he used to toil overtime hand-painting custom decor on jeepneys, the singularly Philippine minibuses facing the scrapheap. These rolling art galleries adorned with images of everything from Batman to babies, as well as disco lights and chrome wheels, have for decades provided cheap transport for millions.
However, pollution and safety concerns have led to a modernization program, with jeepneys 15 years or older to be taken off the streets by next year.
“This is an act of treachery against fellow Filipinos,” De la Cruz said. “This is a uniquely Filipino product. We were born with it.”
When he began 45 years ago, there were hundreds of artists giving the vehicles their famously boisterous paint jobs. Now there are estimated to be fewer than a dozen left.
He has seen orders decline from a high of up to 80 per month in the 1980s to just one or two now.
His canvas is being replaced by eco-jeepneys, powered by electricity or less-polluting diesel engines.
Riders of old jeepneys currently have to climb in through a hatch in the rear, cramming into the benches inside with no respite from the heat and roadside pollution.
The jeepney’s successor has been billed as a big improvement. It has doors, individual seats, air-conditioning and enough height to stand up. However, it is to be mass-produced and look just like a public bus.
Skipping over the jeepney’s bespoke production process in small workshops means a loss of the individual style and flair that made them global symbols of the Philippines.
“It’s one of the most genuine forms of modern folk art that we have,” said Bernie Sim, a Manila-based graphic designer and coauthor of a 2014 book on jeepney art.
French fashion designer Christian Louboutin launched a jeepney-themed handbag collection last year, while Swedish furniture giant IKEA painted a jeepney in its signature blue and yellow to announce plans to open a Philippine store.
However, the vehicles, which were first made from leftover US jeeps after World War II, have been on borrowed time for years.
Jeepneys are highly polluting and the Philippines is desperate to improve air quality in its traffic-clogged cities.
Their drivers are also notorious for ignoring traffic rules and the vehicles have few safety features.
In addition, Manila in 2014 ushered in Internet-based ride-sharing services and three years later Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that the jeepney must evolve or disappear.
“They have all but stopped making jeepneys,” 52-year-old jeepney artist Vic Capuno said.
As a result, he and a colleague at Armak Motors Corp now paint just three or four jeepneys each month.
De la Cruz worked on nine in the past year. He is the only painter left at Manila’s Sarao Motors Inc, once the country’s biggest producer.
Two of his siblings were also jeepney artists, but they died from diseases he believes were caused by years inhaling fumes from the paint. Yet, he is still passionate about the vehicle’s importance in Philippine history.
“When the jeepney disappears, a piece of Filipino culture will also die,” De la Cruz said.
A self-taught painter, he was inspired by the work of renowned local artists such as Carlos Francisco and Fernando Amorsolo.
His jeepney designs, still seen on the streets for now, chronicle the rapidly changing landscape of his home — Las Pinas — from a farming and salt-making backwater into a highly urbanized area.
“It’s a pleasing sight. It brings us back to a time and place that is no more,” De la Cruz said.
After raising four children on the pay earned painting, he now also creates canvases and makes storefront signs as a sideline.
He conceded that he could have a decent life without the jeepneys, but was heartbroken by the government’s decision.
“I would like to appeal to the authorities not to outlaw it,” De la Cruz said. “At times I cry quietly when I think about what is happening.”
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