PORT-AU-PRINCE – In a city all but destroyed by a powerful earthquake and
mired in efforts to rebuild, art may not seem to be a very high priority.
And yet between the mounds of rubble and destroyed buildings, dashes of
color and flashes of design are a common sight, as much of the country’s
transportation needs are met by the colorfully painted shared taxis, known as
“This is the owner’s wife,” said St-Jean Berly a bus-design artisan and pointed
to a large colorful portrait on the back of a 40-seat tap-tap, “I painted her just six
month ago, but she is being redone now.”
With paints and a brush he started the task, retracing his own work, brightening
the display. He explained that the tap-tap’s owner pays for a new paint job
whenever he has the ready cash. The last time Berly saw this bus was six
months ago, before that it had been three years.
Keeping the images fresh can be an economic imperative for some tap-tap
owners, as Haitians often decide to travel with more beautiful vehicles. Colorful,
ornate designs are sometimes coupled with konpa music, piped into the interior
of the vehicles, to attract customers.
Art can make a big difference, particularly on cross-country routes. It can
determine how quickly a tap-tap fills up with paying customers.
Tap-tap construction and design is a thriving business in the downtown districts
of rues Magasin de l’Etat and Chareron . In small factories employing 20 or so
workers, pick-up trucks are converted for about 650 US dollars in 15 days. Pick-
up trucks are turned into shared taxis capable of transporting 15 passengers by
the addition of two benches to the trucks’ bed. A roof, to shield commuters from
the Caribbean sun, is bolted above the seating area.
Larger buses are constructed from wood and tin on the back of trucks. Turning a
stripped truck into a large, 40-seat cross-country tap-tap costs owners more than
2000 US dollars and takes about 22 days. Typically construction includes ornate
window designs, roof-mounted panels and elegantly crafted mud flaps. Often
models of airplanes – symbolizing exotic travel – are bolted to the roof.
Though it disrupted many Haitian businesses, the January earthquake appears
not to have affected the market for tap-taps, as transportation and the business
of providing it remains an important aspect of Haitian life.
Berly, who is 38, has been working in tap-tap construction and design since he
was 21. Like most who eventually get to create the intricate painted designs, he
started by doing less prestigious and lucrative jobs, like fixing the interior wood
benches. Only with experience and skill come the more sought-after design jobs.
At 53, Colen Isaac is one of the veterans in of the business. He has been
involved in the tap-tap construction and design business since he was 20. Isaac’s
specialty is painting landscapes.
Between putting the finishing touches on a pastoral countryside scene on the
back of a bus, he explained that most artists have a specialty.
“There is a guy who does musicians, and another who is known for his football
players,” he said. Isaac is the one who is hired when landscape images are
wanted. He says each unique image he paints comes from his imagination.
“It’s the Haitian country-side,” he said gesturing with his brush to the painting of a
river, a tree and a field, “but you can find it anywhere in Haiti.”
Beside soccer players and rap musicians, religious themes dominate many tap-
tap exteriors. Sometimes, phrases, written in French, Kreyol or English simply
and curtly praise god. Other messages refer to psalms.
However, tap-tap design is not an issue on some of the busier downtown routes,
explained Rudi Lombard, an owner-operator on the Nazon route.
As he waited to have his unadorned tap-tap truck spray washed, he explained
that his truck is typical for those on the downtown, Delmas-Pétion-Ville and
Nazon routes. Its only piece of art is the French phrase ‘God Saves’ on the
cracked windshield. Lombard explained that the downtown routes are so busy
that commuters cannot afford to be choosey.
Still, when picking buses for longer rides, riding in style is a very real
consideration for some Haitians.
Osnel Pierre-Louis, 18, was planning the two-hour journey to his hometown of
Petit-Goave. At the Port-au-Prince departure point in Champs de Mars there will
be many competing tap-taps to choose from, he said.
“Obviously, I will get into the tap-tap with the nicer images” he said.
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