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Why Electrolychee thinks jeepney art goes deeper than decoration

The design duo’s coffee-table book ‘Biyaheng Langit’ chronicles weird, kitschy jeepney decals devoted to the Catholic faith.

MANILA, Philippines - Say what you will about the humble jeepney, but it’s probably the most popular way to get around anywhere in the Philippines. Apart from its functional appeal, jeepneys can also be mobile works of art, featuring kitschy decals with Jesus, Sesame Street characters, and, often, women in various states of undress.

Design duo Electrolychee has turned their attention to this phenomenon and compiled 180 graphic, surreal and amusing examples of jeepney art devoted to the Catholic faith in Biyaheng Langit, a coffee-table book and love letter to the oft-granted form of pop art. This curious project began in 2010 when the duo saw a “haughty-looking Christ,” and it led to an obsession that found them shooting at busy intersections, during stop-and-go traffic, and in dingy parking lots, relying not so much on photography skills but right-time and right-place luck.

In this sprawling book, Bru Sim and Marcus Nada examine these underrated masterpieces, made by self-taught sign painters and folk artists. The two discuss their favorite images, the importance of jeepneys in pop culture, and its future in the transportation landscape.  

SUPREME: Why Biyaheng Langit?

ELECTROLYCHEE: Do you mean the title? It is a colloquial Pinoy saying. It means “heavenly voyage.” It’s a perfect fit for the book, which documents jeepney religious imagery.

How are these decals made, and who makes them?

Vinyl jeepney decal artworks are made by hand by self-taught jeepney artisans.

 Would you consider it art?

As artists ourselves, yes. The book also has articles touching on jeepney art as craft, as religious art, and as an art form itself. Something to chew on: “If a pleasure-giving function predominates, the artifact is called art; if a practical function dominates, it is called craft,” said Henry Glassie, folk art authority, in 1972.

 While creating this book (four years’ worth of photos, including a year’s worth of research and interviews), it was important for us to explain what we’re documenting. We learned that jeepney art goes much deeper than just decoration, and has roles in Philippine art, industry, and religion. Biyaheng Langit is really an art book, but it’s also accessibly academic.

How do you take photos, especially of jeeps in transit?

‘Yun ang madugo. Lesson learned: Do not wear shorts while documenting as you don’t want to be kneeling on the oven-hot pavement for a good shot.

What’s your favorite image?

We love kitsch, so we definitely fell for the expression on this Jesus (see photo).

How about the weirdest?

Our favorites are usually the weirdest. Pretty perfection is boring. The more raw and unschooled the artwork is, the more artistic and amusing these are for us.

Besides religious iconography, what other images are prominent?

We only covered religious images on jeepneys for the book. Maybe other themes for next titles. Ang dami kasing imagery on jeepneys. Compartmentalizing the jeepney makes it more easy to admire, document and discuss in a physical book.

How has the art of jeepney decal changed through the years?

It hasn’t, only what’s uso. The old-school cut-and paste collage process is still the same. This is an art form based on the medium and the artists’ imagination. The artisans will create a jeepney vinyl according to what the client wants. Remember: This is a job to the artisans, not art to them. But an extremely gifted and skilled artisan, given enough lead time, can create wonderful jeepney art. We ourselves had a couple of portraits made. We did see one “advancement”: a vinyl sticker of Jesus with airbrushed highlights. He looked BB-cream dewy. 

How relevant is the jeepney to Filipino pop culture?

It’s the top-of-mind icon of Pinoy pop culture because it combines so many ideas and concepts and histories: World War II surplus, ‘50s American pop culture like tailfins, rodeo cowboys, superhero comics, to current pop culture like anime, pop stars, and movies, sabong cocks, a mechanized kalesa, horror vacui, the sacred and the profane, Filipino urban animism. It is a genuine, self-taught and passed-down art form of the masses.

Are jeepneys here to stay?

Government and laking-aircon citizens have been calling for the jeepney’s abolition since the ‘50s. But it’s here to stay simply because of need. It’s the cheapest form of public transportation we have. The solution is to standardize, formalize, and update the jeepney industry. But that discussion will only open up another can of worms. There are so many studies done but hardly any implemented. Corruption disrupts implementation.

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Biyaheng Langit will officially launch today at Vinyl on Vinyl Gallery (2135 Chino Roces Avenue, Makati), starting 3 p.m. There will be a book signing, a jeepney craft exhibit, live sign painting, and taho and fishballs.

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Tweet the author @kojibberish.

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