In 2015, I had started documenting Philippine public art and historical sites in the cities of Manila, Quezon City, San Juan, Pasig, Taguig, Mandaluyong, Makati, Parañaque, Pasay, Antipolo, San Pedro (Laguna Province), Los Baños, Baguio, Cebu, Lapu-Lapu, Sibonga, Carcar, San Fernando (Cebu Province), Naga (Cebu Province), Talisay (Cebu Province), Minglanilla, Davao, Jimenez, Ozamis, and Pagadian. In all my travels, I have also noticed another form of public art, which people tend to take for granted the talent placed into these: the jeepney. What caught my attention is the level of artistry seen on the jeepneys plying Aurora Boulevard, in Quezon City. And with the estimated 85,554 jeepneys legally registered in Metro Manila alone, there are more than a thousand of artworks that people see daily, as the jeepneys pass through Aurora Boulevard, and other routes in metropolis.
The Philippine jeepney started with the surplus United States of American military General Purpose vehicles, or GPs (geeps or jeeps for short), were left in the country, at the end of World War II in 1945. The former US military lieutenant, Harry Solomon Stonehill (born Harry Steinberg, 1917-2002), took advantage of his former military logistics connections to sell these to Filipinos in the black market. Stonehill used his earning from his surplus business to build seventeen businesses, including the Republic Glass Corporation for glass production, Philippine Tobacco Corporation for tobacco and tobacco curing, Philippine Cotton Corporation, American Asiatic Oil Corporation, and Far East Publishing, which helped jumped start the Philippine economy and industry, after the devastation of the war. These businesses, including starting the Philippine tobacco industry, made Stonehill the richest and most influential man in the Philippines during the 1950s and 1960s. However, allegations of bribery to Philippine and American government officials started to leak, and rumors claims that these were perpetuated by the CIA. Senator Jose “Pepe” Wright Diokno (1922-1987) was head of the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) started the investigation against Stonehill, but President Diosdado Pangan Macapagal (1910-1997) dismissed the case and Diokno from his position, while pardoning and then deporting Stonehill while sequestering all his assets. To this day, no one knows what happened to Stonehill’s assets that ran into the billions, while Stonehill died in Spain an impoverished man.
The first jeepneys were based on the American Willy’s MB and the Ford GPW, which were both formally called the U.S. Army Truck, 1/4 ton, 4×4, Command Reconnaissance. Enterprising Filipinos soon started changing the rear seats and extending the rear capacity, while adding a roof to protect the passengers from the harsh tropical sun and monsoon rains. Soon, Filipino entrepreneurs started opening their own jeep refurbishing and later fabrication companies. Presently, the companies that are still operating jeepney fabrication businesses are A. Borja Motors, Armak Motors, Arnel Motors, Belen Motors, Biga Motors, Celestial Motors, David Motors, Doctor Motors, EM Motors, Fauni Sico Motors, F. G. Motors, Francisco Motors, Hataw Motors, Hayag Motors, Hebron Motors, Lawin Motors, LGS Motors, Lippad Motors, Malagueña Motors, Marquez Motors, MD Jeepstar, Melford Motors, Milwaukee Motors, Morales Motors, Nelson Motors, Nemar Motors, Obetski Motors, Rizaleno Motors, Rogans Motors, Sanlor Motors, Santo Niño, Sarao Motors, Skipper Motors, Tabing Motors, and Tingloy Motors. The modern jeepney still looks much like a supercharged Williy’s MB, but is no longer using any part from these wartime relics. Instead, these jeepney fabrication businesses build their own chassis and body, while using motors and other mechanical parts from Japan. Meanwhile in the province of Cebu, Davao and Iloilo, the old jeepney style has been almost completely phased out, in favor of the refurbished Japanese cargo vans.
Before the introduction of the jeepney to the Philippine roads, there were many forms of public land mass transportation plying the Philippines streets. Public transport started with the horse drawn carts called kalesa and tartanilla during the Spanish colonial period (1540-1898), which would evolve to horse drawn trams called travania that followed railways across the city streets. Train systems were first introduced in 1892, and supplemented by electric trams in the city streets by the American occupation (1898-1946). By the 1910s, bus services traverse both rural and urban routes, and by the 1930s refurbished cars called the autocalesa was the forerunner of the jeepney.
The American bombings of many Philippine cities in 1945 led to destruction of many public transport systems, throughout the country. And the cheaply available jeeps from Stonehill offered many enterprising Filipinos to fill the void for public transportation.
The tendency to decorate the public transport vehicles never started with the jeepney, as this was already started with the Spanish era kalesa and tartanilla, and carried on with the autocalesa of the 1930s and 1940s. With the introduction of the jeepney and the readily available chrome technologies in the 1950s, jeepney art moved from colorful to flashy. This love with chromed decorations, matched with brightly painted colored patterns, flags and buntings, continued to the 1960s and 1970s. Some jeepneys would sport hand-painted artworks on their sides, but these were not common place.
The later 1980s and 1990s, jeepney art began to decline with the shifting economy and rising prices of chromed decorations. Some of the newer jeepneys settled for simple solid color schemes, with very little decoration. However by the mid-1990s, a new style of jeepney art appeared with cheap and readily available weatherproof sticker sheets coming to the market. These sticker sheets of different colors allowed jeepney designers to create a large array of images on the sides and the hoods of the jeepneys. Jeepney art themes ranged from colorful patterns, to the flashy lettering styles copied for street graffiti, to pictures of women, animals, cartoon characters, race cars, and religious figures. The only problem with the sticker art was the inability to create depth and shadow with the stickers and the limitation of colors available, especially for rendering skin tones with yellow orange as the default color.
By the early 2000s, jeepney art took a big leap with the flooding of cheap automotive acrylic paint spray cans into the market. This not only created a renaissance in Philippine street art and tagging, but also in jeepney art. Street artists soon found a new medium to express themselves and earn a living by painting on jeepneys. The internet also brought easily access to reference materials such as pictures of celebrities, fantasy art, and cartoon characters. These new “airbrushed” artworks will be the subject of my next series of articles, especially in relation to religious art.