Last month a friend of mine, Rachel, told me about how when she visited Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010, she found Jesus’s name and face painted all over the city’s public transportation vehicles, known as “tap-taps.” Tap-taps are privately owned and elaborately painted buses or pickup trucks that serve as shared taxis; they follow fixed routes, and riders can disembark at any time—simply by tapping the wall or ceiling. A ride across town costs only ten to twenty-five cents, depending on what the driver chooses to charge.
In the four-and-a-half-minute news segment below, Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money reports that tap-tap owners pay artists upwards of $1200 to paint their buses—more than most Haitians make in a year. Why? Because competition is steep, Davidson says, and owners feel that the prettier and more colorful their bus is, the more passengers will be attracted to it. Also, in general passengers feel that if tap-tap owners can afford to pay for such high-quality art, they can also afford to keep the vehicle in good working condition, guaranteeing a safer ride.
Here’s another newscast on tap-taps, reported by Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walkers.
As you can see from these two videos, Jesus is part of most tap-taps’ celebrity portrait hodgepodge which includes athletes, musicians, movie stars, politicians, and others. It’s always interesting to me to find that Jesus belongs not only to American pop culture, but is a fixture in the popular culture of other countries as well.
Also interesting is that of the small sampling of Jesus tap-tap photos I found, Jesus is nowhere depicted as a native Haitian. In about half the cases, he is depicted in the standard Western way: as a white man with long wavy blonde hair.
And in the other half, he is slightly darker-skinned (certainly not as dark as the Haitians) and has kinky hair.
When Rachel sent me her photos, she also sent me a link to a blog post titled “What Color is Haitian Jesus?”, written by a U.S. diplomat serving in Port-au-Prince. Tap-taps are only one small part of the very vibrant Haitian art scene. This man’s article takes a look at the art in El-Saieh Gallery. “Haitian art is as varied as its people,” he writes—in both style and content. Religious art is no different. As regards depictions of Jesus, he found that some artists choose to depict him as white, some choose to depict him as black, and some choose to depict him (with historical accuracy) as olive-toned. I wonder what motivates those choices? This is a question I plan to explore in a future post, where I will also share some examples of Haitian Christian wall art, including church paintings. First I’d like to find out more about what Christianity looks like in Haiti. For those of you who have been there or may even live there, I’d love to hear your take. (If you’d rather share via e-mail instead of in the comment field, you can reach me at email@example.com.)
But back to tap-taps. I love how a lot of the artists have bannered the vehicles with Bible verses and spiritually pointed sayings and prayers, like “Christ can,” “Believe in God,” or “Thanks, Jesus.” What a way to be loud and proud about your faith! It’s like bumper stickers to the extreme.
When asked how he feels about these Christian messages, tap-tap driver Derrick Darius said, “I like this message because it is he [God] who gives us business and our daily bread.”
Do you have any pictures of Jesus-painted tap-taps that you’d be willing to share? If so, I will include them as an addendum to this post.
What do you think about Jesus’s place in tap-tap art?
A special thanks to Rachel Hastings for this topic suggestion, and for those who gave me permission to use their photos!