Photo & People

Jeepney Art: Moving Stories

Snapping photos on the streets of Metro Manila, one would definitely find it hard to miss one of The Philippines’ most iconic cultural symbols—the jeepney. Colourful and loud, these passenger vehicles made their debut in the 1940s. They’ve since become an integral part of the lives of common Filipinos, and are touted as the “Kings of Metro Manila’s Roads”.

A row of jeepneys trundling down the road is a common sight in Manila.​

EOS 800D, EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, f/11, 135mm, 1/160sec, ISO200

Jeepneys aren’t exactly the most comfortable means of getting around. They have open windows with no air conditioning, which subject passengers to the heat and fumes of the city. But with a base fare of as little as PHP 8.00 (USD 0.16), they’re perhaps the cheapest mode of transport anywhere in the country.

A gaily painted jeepney packed with passengers. The peeling paint on the roof shows the hard use to which it has been put.​

EOS 800D, EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, f/5.6, 135mm, 1/640sec, ISO2000

Beyond their obvious utility, jeepneys also became a moving showcase for a quintessential Filipino art form. Jeepney vinyl art made the already colourful streets of Manila even livelier with their four-wheeled canvases. Vinyl was the preferred material for making jeepney artwork because it was easy to cut and apply, durable enough to withstand the rough use to which a jeepney is subjected daily, and available in many colours.

Standing on a busy Manila street corner, one can still spot vibrantly decorated jeepneys whizzing past, each splashed with a unique pattern of colours, every hue carrying a story from the streets just waiting to be told.

One has a colourful front end but a plain body. Another is covered in blue—perhaps the driver’s favorite colour. In the blink of an eye, another jeepney drives by, covered in yellow paint with details resembling a festival. One more follows, this one designed with a masked ati-atihan holding a statue of the Santo Niño.

Images of Santo Niño, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, and the Holy Family were common requests by jeepney drivers. In predominantly Catholic Philippines, having these images adorn the jeepneys are considered prayers for every trip to be blessed.

This jeepney looks like it has been very well-maintained, with gleaming bright paint and shiny, untarnished chrome arches over its rear wheel. With the jeepney full, one daring passenger chose to ride hanging out the back door.​

EOS 800D, EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, f/4.5, 19.0mm, 1/800sec, ISO100

Some jeepneys sport the phrase “Katas ng Saudi,” or “Essence of Saudi” – which means it was purchased using wages the owner earned working in Saudi Arabia. Some have character art from popular animes like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho, or even Pokemon, most likely because the driver is a big otaku.

This jeepney driver looks to be a comic fan, as he has decorated his jeepney with an image of X-Men’s Wolverine.​

EOS 800D, EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, f/5, 35mm, 1/500sec, ISO160

Sadly, it doesn’t appear as if this city-wide gallery of masterpieces; these colourful windows into the lives of jeepney drivers; will survive the changing times and erratic economy.

A close-up of a jeepney’s route hand-printed on the side of the vehicle.​

EOS 800D, EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, f/10, 18mm, 1/250sec, ISO400

Ernesto Rivera is a jeepney driver and a living witness to the decline of jeepney art. He tells us, “Nowadays, new jeepney prices are very high and many jeepney drivers buy theirs second-hand. Most of their expenses go towards maintenance, to keep their jeepneys running in good condition, and not so much on what it should look like,” he tells us.

“Passengers need a ride, so we give it to them. They don’t ride a jeepney because of its design,” he adds.

Asked about the cost of decorating a jeepney in art, Mang Ernesto estimates it to be around “PHP 20,000.00 to 25,000.00” – an amount he said he’d rather allocate to the vehicle’s upkeep. At least that guarantees the passenger’s safety, which is what’s important after all.”

The drivers’ preference of practicality greatly contributes to the decline of jeepney art. 

But the desire for personalisation and Filipinos’ innate creativity are stronger than mere economics. We still see colourful signages on jeepney windshields and routes written in beautiful calligraphy on the sides of the vehicles. In time, perhaps, these subtler ways of visualising each driver’s unique personality will grow into an art form that will make its own mark on jeepney history. Or maybe some other way will be invented for jeepney drivers to express themselves without breaking the bank.

Art and inventiveness will find a way. And we can’t wait to see where they’ll take Manila’s jeepneys next.

A jeepney taking in the sights of the city while stopped at the traffic lights. The Terminator 2 design on his jeepney marks him as a fan of the long-running movie franchise.

EOS 800D, EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, f/5, 50mm, 1/500sec, ISO200

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EOS 800D (Body)

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EF-S18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM

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Photographer’s Note : Jeepney Art

Manila’s gaily decorated jeepneys are becoming increasingly scarce. If you’re looking to take your own photos of them, patience and fast reactions are key. Stand at a busy intersection and await your chance to shoot one when you spot it among its plainer cousins.

If the daytime heat bothers you, shooting the city at night can also yield great images. When a jeepney turns its decorative lights on, the interplay between vivid colours, lights and shadows can be visually spectacular.

As your subject will likely be in motion, you may want to use a tripod for a sharper, more stable shot. In fact, since you’re heading out, make sure to pack everything you may need so you’ll have all the right gear at all the right moments.


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