Traveling in Suriname with Marley and Bush on the Bus

Simon Romero, writing for the New York Times, looks at the brightly painted buses of Suriname.

Stroll through this city, perched between jungle and sea, and Suriname’s past as a Dutch colony comes into view: stately wooden white mansions, Lutheran churches, street names with vast streams of consonants and vowels (try Zwartenhovenbrugstraat on for size.)

But the colorful minibuses gliding through Paramaribo’s streets show a different side of the evolution of this astonishingly diverse South American country.

Drivers adorn these “wilde bussen” with hand-painted illustrations of the heroes, outlaws, religious temples and musical subcultures that beguile this nation, home to an ethnic variety that includes Javanese, Indians, Chinese, indigenous groups, mixed-race Creoles and Maroons, descendants of runaway slaves.

Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Sameera Reddy make many appearances in these paintings, as do singers like Capleton and Bob Marley in various stages of his career. Even a dizzying span of American political figures, from Malcolm X to George W. Bush, whiz by on buses.

“You paint your bus to attract riders,” said one driver, Satish Yokhoe, 29. He adorned his with a painting of the Bollywood screen ido Kareena Kapoor and the words “Ne Bluf Mi,” a phrase in Sranan Tongo, the Creole language that is Suriname’s lingua franca, that translates as “Don’t Challenge Me.”

“If you leave your bus blank,” said Mr. Yokhoe, “you might as well get off the street.”

Suriname is not alone in boasting painted buses on its streets. It has hefty competition from Colombia’s chivas, used for mobile revelry, Haiti’s tap-taps, Panama’s diablos rojos (red devils) and the jeepneys of the Philippines, originally made from World War II-era American military jeeps.

But Paramaribo’s wild buses do their best.

Their paintings are more restrained than those found on their Caribbean cousins, often limited to the front or back of the buses, with additional adornments on mudflaps, doors and gas tank covers. But craftsmen painting here within these parameters, including some who sign their work, still accomplish wonders.

Nishar Khodabaks has captured the sultriness of Privanka Chopra, an Indian actress and former Miss World, in one bus painting. Other paintings are eerily prophetic, like one by Morales Peerwijk depicting Desi Bouterse, the cocaine-trafficking strongman who led Suriname in the 1980s.

The painting of Mr. Bouterse, now 65, which was done in 2009 and shows him in dark sunglasses and a green beret, as was his style in the ’80s, used to include the motto “Basi Joeroe,” or “The Boss’s Time.” Now, after Mr. Bouterse’s startling return to power last year, it reads “Baas Man” (Boss Man).

Some commuters do not care how their bus is painted, as long it gets them to where they are going. Others are more discriminating. “I always look for the Jah Cure bus,” said Amanda Safira, 18, a technical school student, referring to the dreadlocked singer, born Siccature Alcock in Jamaica, who has a following here.

Some paintings explore political and social themes. Mudflaps are illustrated with handguns or pipes of ganja. One black-and-white painting depicts Mr. Bush and Saddam Hussein, side by side, both looking uncomfortable. Osama bin Laden appears in one painting, his forefinger pointed upward as if delivering a lecture.

Hindu temples adorn some buses. Others seem to draw inspiration from biblical tales of temptation, like one painting of a red apple with two attractive ladies and the saying “Have a Bite.” Many buses show women in suggestive poses, from scantily clad hip-hop goddesses to myriad depictions of the American actress Jennifer Lopez..

“Some are really naughty,” said Chandra van Binnendijk, a journalist here who co-wrote a book on Paramaribo’s buses.

Indeed, government inspectors are known to clamp down on some illustrations considered too racy. In one such case, a painter simply painted a pair of shorts over a bikini bottom. Others, meanwhile, go on drawing their inspiration from movie posters or photographs in glossy magazines.

“These paintings are not meticulously copied but are made with a little bit of freedom, a little clumsiness,” said Ms. van Binnendijk, the journalist. “That’s the charm of it, what makes us human.”

Some of the painters themselves offer simple explanations for the appeal of their illustrations. “I’m honoring their art,” said Mr. Khodabaks, 41, the painter who specializes in Bollywood screen idols, between puffs on a Morello cigarette.

His assistant, Radjesh Hiera, 41, offered his own assessment of Mr. Khodabaks’s paintings, which can cost as much as $1,300 for the “package,” illustrating an entire bus.

“He is the Rembrandt of Paramaribo,” Mr. Hiera said. “You pay money for quality.”

Mr. Khodabaks has competition in the Rembrandt department from other painters here. One is Ramon Bruyning, who specializes in painting a broad range of musicians, including Michael Jackson, the South African reggae star Lucky Dube and Papa Touwtjie, a Surinamese dancehall singer shot dead in 2005.

Mr. Bruyning, 43, may be Paramaribo’s most prolific bus painter. In an interview at his home, he said he had illustrated more than 400 buses over the years, including jobs in which he was asked to paint over his own work.

“The customer is the boss,” he said. “I know my work won’t last forever.”

Mr. Bruyning said he had painted Bollywood stars for Indian clients and dancehall heartthrobs for Creoles. His paintings of women, which he said were inspired by images in Dutch graphic novels and comic books, sometimes evoke those of the American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein..

Still, Mr. Bruyning said while taking a break from painting a sausage cart for a client in the Netherlands, “I’m not familiar with that man’s work.”

With Suriname’s painted buses so beloved here, they face threats in an age of digital piracy. Entrepreneurs have begun downloading digital photos of the same idols painted on buses, making sticker versions for the buses that sell for a fraction of what a commissioned painting costs.

“This development disgusts me,” said Mr. Khodabaks, the specialist in Bollywood bus paintings.

Mr. Bruyning, the other bus painter, said he, too, was familiar with the stickers. But he said the best way to defeat them was to keep focused on the cultural and political pulse of this city’s streets. Aside from movie stars and singers, “The people want paintings of someone strong or defiant,” he said.

Paramaribo’s painted-bus pantheon certainly has an eclectic array of ideologies. Where else could Presidents Obama and Bush, or Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, for that matter, gaze at commuters alongside Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?

The elements in this city, its air thick with humidity, treat them all the same, slowly eroding their likeness. This, in turn, gives the bus painters more work.

“Qaddafi will be my next subject,” said Mr. Bruyning, referring to the embattled Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. “I want to paint him before he is gone.”

For the original report and additional photographs go to

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