ARLINGTON — The humble man with the paint brushes gave little hint of his world renown. His work spoke for him.
Haider Ali, the maestro of Pakistani truck art, came to town last month. The five garage-door murals he left alongside Highway 530 offered a glimpse of why he’s gained fame far beyond his hometown of Karachi. Scenes of peacocks, a mountain village and an eagle shone in vivid shades rarely seen in North America.
“These are the colors of peace,” he said.
With tousled hair, a green T-shirt and blue jeans, Ali’s appearance is as understated as his art is bold.
To start, he sketches a rough outline in pencil. From there, he transforms blank surfaces into kaleidoscopic landscapes. Typically, his canvas, if you can call it that, is a bus or a heavy truck. He’s painted thousands upon thousands of them.
It’s a family tradition. He was taught by his father as a child. His grandfather also painted trucks.
His supplies in Arlington consisted of quart cans of Rust-Oleum: just the primary colors plus black and white, which he mixed. He works freehand.
Ali’s English isn’t as flawless as his brush strokes. But his enthusiasm comes through. The 38-year-old said he’s visited the United States a half-dozen times. He considers it an artist’s paradise.
“I like America,” he said. “Every state is different.”
This was his first time in Washington, one of many stops over several months.
Ali came to the Evergreen state at the invitation of Mark Lovejoy, a home-grown Arlington farmer who used to produce “The Dirty Cultivator” podcast. Lovejoy commissioned Ali to transform the utilitarian doors at Garden Treasures Nursery & Organic Farm, his roadside business east of I-5.
He gave Ali free rein to paint what he wanted. The installation would convey a theme of bringing people together through farming, food and art.
“This art is going to be here for a long time for people to enjoy,” the farmer said.
Lovejoy, 41, reached out to Ali through a friend he met while studying at Western Washington University. The friend, Fahd Saeed, had Ali paint a van in Salem, Oregon, last year.
The artist’s work also has graced a trolley in Amherst, Massachusetts, a tram in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a public bus in Istanbul. In 2002, he and another truck artist created an exhibition for the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Back home, Ali runs a vehicle-painting workshop and teaches university-level courses. He founded Phool Patti, a team dedicated to promoting truck art in South Asia and around the world.
“I’m busy in Pakistan. Very busy,” he said.
When he left Arlington, he headed to Texas for the Houston Art Car Klub, with more scheduled stops in New York, Indiana and Tennessee, among others. He plans to return to Pakistan in October.
On a 90-degree day in early August, Ali stood in Lovejoy’s parking lot, taking advantage of the afternoon shade to work on the garage doors. Back home, his kind of art is the norm — most truck owners get their rigs decorated, he said.
“People don’t drive a truck unless it’s painted,” he said.
Lovejoy chimed in: “From what people tell me, it’s kind of like the way people do tattoos.”
The farmer reflected.
“So much art happens inside, in the studio,” Lovejoy said.
Ali’s artistic expression, in contrast, can’t be confined. He’s game to paint just about anything, anywhere. A dream project would be an airplane.
“A small plane,” he said.