There are about 88,000 registered taxis in Mumbai, the majority of them ancient Fiats. This once lucrative business has now become highly competitive. As distances between home and work increased, fuel prices rose sharply and traffic congestion grew steadily worse, it became expensive and time consuming to travel by taxi: buses and trains provided quicker, cheaper alternatives. Taxi owners, therefore, resorted to devising ways to make taxi travel more attractive.
Colourful interiors, stereo systems and dazzling lights are all used to lure customers. But even more noticeable are the bright stickers that decorate the exteriors of most Mumbai taxis. As all cabs are customarily painted in yellow and black, these decorations help to differentiate one from the other. The designers, often working direct from the roadside, cut the graphics by hand from self-adhesive radium vinyl which reflects the light. Favourite gods, elaborate geometric patterns, portraits of film stars and the logos of luxury brands all feature on the cabs. This ‘sticker art’ has now evolved into a highly developed urban design form. Two of its most experienced and highly-skilled exponents are Manohar and Samir Manohar Mistry, who worked on this month’s cover for CR. Anand Tharaney of Grandmother India interviewed them for us (see the video here).
CREATIVE REVIEW: When did the tradition of decorating taxis begin in Mumbai?
MANOHAR: It started in 1973. I had the garage and we had a customer friend who brought us some stickers from Dubai. His vehicle was being repaired and he told us to use them, just to see how it looked. So we cut the stickers into strips and stuck them on. Afterwards, when the car was placed on the road, the lights hit the stickers and it reflected. It was really nice. Very beautiful.
In Dubai they were using the stickers for garbage bins. This guy was driving his car and saw the bins on the road – the reflective material means people can see the bins at night. He asked for some and they pulled it off the bins for him.
After applying it as small strips on his car, we thought of cutting random designs since we had the sticker roll here at the garage. Gradually we got the hang of it. We did some floral designs from books, or used pictures to trace patterns and cut them into shapes.
Then from 1973 onwards, it became a fad to apply it to the cars. We started playing with colour combinations, of red over yellow, and some other colours on top of that. We tried some pictures, using white as a background, applying bits of colour over it, filling it, creating designs. You develop a knack for it, gradually.
SAMIR: When I was in school I used to come here during recess. I learned by watching my father work. So I practiced, started making portraits, little different designs. I would look for designs in some book or a newspaper, or I would just make designs from ideas that came to mind. But there weren’t any particular books that I used.
CR: Is there a link between the taxis and Indian traditions of decorative arts – we also see a lot of decorated trucks for example? What kind of brief do you get from the drivers?
M: If I looked at other things, like festival decorative patterns, it would be copying or imitation; I’d rather do my own ideas. While using type, I would make the letters by cutting them manually into shapes. Just like we get used to writing things, it’s the same while cutting. It becomes as simple as that with the letters. Now we have computers, but earlier all the work was done manually.
S: The taxi art form is different. It’s natural, like freehand drawing. You take a piece of sticker and you can cut whatever shapes from it you like. It’s a spontaneous art. There is no set way to do it. The cutting depends on the skill of your hand and how you use your mind.
M: There’s hardly a brief from the taxi drivers, and we do whatever we fancy. They just tell us the names or words they want us to use, but we decide on the design and how to do it. We do it with our hands. The art is in the head: if you’ve done a certain style, one would try a different shape and style for another word. You put one colour over another and judge if it goes with it. You get it automatically. It’s been years of practice now.
CR: Are there particular popular themes or styles being used right now?
M: Taxi art has seen a lot of different fashions. Earlier it was just stripes, then we added dimension and style to it, and new things have come up.
S: Some of the styles in demand are from cinemascope, the 3d letters. It has its origin in the film title design for Sholay, the Hindi blockbuster; we’ve been doing variations on that lately. So some influences of film posters can be seen – the point is that the design should be popular; it should work for the person we are designing for. If it’s a good design but doesn’t work for the client, there’s no point.
Apart from the lettering, portraits of gods, like Saibaba, Ganesha, Shiva etc are popular. Portraits work well. In line art, one would do mostly flower designs, circular patterns etc. It depends on the way your hand moves. There’s no problem with the cutting, you can turn it any way you want.
CR: Where do you get your materials from?
S: I get my radium stickers from Ram Stickers, a shop situated at Opera House [the downtown area known for its diamond market]. Then there are a few more shops at Abdur Rehman Street. Also, there are different materials available but I generally try to use good quality stickers for my work, ones that last for five to six years rather than the Indian quality that is available – we don’t use much of that.
The stickers we use are called ‘radium reflector’. Earlier, they used to make one-piece stickers and we used to cut it to scale. In the last ten to 15 years or so they’ve started making it in different sizes, 2mm, 4mm etc.
I have got a computer, but have not developed a knack for it yet. There is a lot one can do with computers but the computer plotter can only cut a single colour pattern. For shadows or working with different colour shades, one needs to do it as manual cutting.
CR: What is going to happen to taxi art once the old black and yellow Fiat taxis [which were discontinued in 1983] start to be replaced with modern vehicles? Will it die off?
S: More or less it’s fine, but in comparison to the past, the work has reduced. It’s not as much in demand with the new cars compared to the Fiats. Mostly, we are being asked to do the number plate or permit names. Also there’s not been much portrait work recently.
The Fiat is quite an unusual car. You can design it any which way you want and it will look beautiful. Its glass and body are something you can work freely with. It’s not the same with other cars. Here you have to keep in mind the medium and fit your design to it. It should be visible but not gaudy.
M: The new cars such as the Maruti [an Indian carmaker owned by Suzuki] have more scope for radium, there is more space to apply the stickers. But I can’t say much about the future of the business, it’s up to the government. Some time ago, they said they wanted to clean the radium stickers off all the taxis … if the government decides to continue its use, it will flourish, and if they start charging a fine for it, we’d have to remove it. As far as new cars are concerned, there is no reason the trade will get affected. Whatever the car, private or a cab on hire, they all love the stickers.
For more on Mumbai taxi art and other vernacular type in the city, go to typocity.com, an online project documenting typography in Mumbai. Thanks to the Mistrys plus Kurnal Rawat, Aashim Tyagi and Anand Tharaney at Grandmother India, grandmother.in. And thanks to Shashi for the loan of his taxi.