Hustling On Wheels
Van culture in St.Vincent is pretty cool to say the least.
The main focal point of this blog post is the van drivers, the passengers and the culture that surrounds their lifestyle. The more you look at how it all works is the more you can begin to find a new appreciation for what they have to offer for St.Vincent.
When I started this project I was walking around on the side of the road with no real goal in mind except to take photos of vans. I remember feeling reluctant to talk to the van drivers and conductors because I was afraid they wouldn't understand what I was trying to do. This all quickly changed on my first day taking photos, I found that most of the conductors were giving me thumbs up out of their windows and the drivers were smiling through their windscreens often beeping their horns at me as a friendly nod . I then decided from there it was best to dive right in and hope for the best instead of wade in the safety of the shoreline.
I quickly found myself as a passenger of these vans several times a day, often talking to people squished next to me along their daily route. I bombarded the passengers with questions about how they enjoy the van services and surprisingly everyone I 'interviewed' in these vans were exceptionally accommodating. Like any well defined culture, the more I spoke to people is the more I started to understand the topic. People often shared similar remarks about the vans whether I was sat in a van talking to a college student with loud Vybez Kartel lyrics in our ears, or on the side of the road with an elderly lady holding her cargo waiting for any van to relieve her from the hot sun. One fascinating thing I noted is that while everyone was talking about the vans and their behaviors, if you wanted to know if it was true you could just look up from your notepad and see them doing it. I especially noticed this one time while interviewing an older lady as a van came practically drifting around the corner, she yelled "You see dat! Dem LAWLESS" as I scribbled in my notepad. I call this phenomenon "real time research"
Graphics Well Above the Speed Limit.
Meet Galdi Neehall.
Galdi knows the van culture like no other, he has been designing vans for well over 10 years and has done hundreds of designs. Galdi was instrumental in helping me really coming to understand and truly appreciate the art that reflects the van drivers. His talent for understanding stories from the van drivers which requires literal translation both in language and in emotion is paramount to his success. He mentioned that if you don't talk like they do, walk like they do and even act like they do, then you wont be able to produce their kind of art. He had to reflect their thoughts to help them understand what they wanted, meaning he had to literally show them what they were trying to say. You could essentially tag as him as a translator, psychologist and artist all in one. I funnily imagined the van driver laying down on a couch as Galdi questioned them while stroking his beard asking them to kindly "tell me about your childhood".
I've heard many say that the best art often goes without description (I guess that sucks for my blog!) if that is true then you can certainly look at the Vans for inspiration, the art on the vans are hardly ever just what they seem, and their descriptions only come in a few splattered words on the hood. Galdi often mentioned that the van drivers will approach him with complex stories buried behind materialism (money,party,drugs) that is often overlooked, and it was his job to delve deeper into their lives and develop what it was they were trying to say. If you wanted to know what many Vincentians thought about art then you should look at vans, if you wanted more Vincentians to appreciate Picasso we should put it on a Van first. But don't be surprised if the painting has a weed leaf, Courvoisier and some $100 bills along with it.
The stories that are on the vans also represent a very core culture of St.Vincent which is kept close to the van drivers' hearts. Graphic art on vans here is a widely misunderstood form of art in St.Vincent even though anyone who visits here or lives here is exposed to it. Even though I claim this large misunderstanding of Vincy van art, it is largely expressive and hardly censored. Mickel Carr the driver of Beatz was a van that had faced some controversy on his image of Osama Bin Laden. I approached him on the matter and he was very insightful on the entire atmosphere of the van culture. His only comments related to his ' Osama Bin Laden Van Art' was "He was hard to kill", all I could say was "that's true". The Beatz van is said to be one of the most progressive Vans pushing the boundaries on creativity, at one point even having a horn that sounded like the laugh of a Jamaican dance hall artist Vybez Kartel which was immensely popular.
Other countries have started to value the van art. There have been developers in St.Kitts who contacted Galdi to start expressing his work on their own public transport. This can be seen as an export of Vincentian culture and art. Who knows who else might want to capture the essence of St.Vincent being inspired by art on Vans?
Who Dares Ride?
If you want to understand who rides in these vans then all you have to do is look around you anywhere you are, most people in St.Vincent have to rely on them at some point in their lives. There is a stigma associated with riding in van’s which may make you think that someone shouldn’t use this as a form of transportation, but that stigma is loosely based on a fear which is only present in extreme cases much like most other things. However saying these vans are like most other things is far from the truth, these vans are popularized and patronized by the same fears that generate that stigma: speed, loud music, provocative graphics and most notably risky behavior on the road. Sitting in the van for some days will surely force you to encounter some of these characteristics due to the pure volume of van drivers that go back and forth, but this experience will be one of the most well rounded as an introduction to St.Vincent.
As you jump into the van you jump into the culture of St.Vincent, where you rub shoulders with the many idiosyncrasies of this island nation.
Its easy to find a queue of individuals waiting for vans, and in these queues you find all sorts of different people often going to or from work, school, or their friends. I often noted that it was easier to figure out where people were going. Simply by looking at them you could usually tell which direction they were headed. Even more reliably you could listen to their conversations as passengers answered their phones in the vans trying to talk over the loud music, you would hear the passenger shout 'Cut Dat TUNE!' to the conductor to turn it down the music via their remotes in their hands
An Interview with a Van Driver
When I asked the van driver his name he promptly asked me "My name or the name of the van?" I responded "How do you want to be known?" He smiled and simply said "Short Boss". I primarily asked him about how he caters to his passengers needs and what do people think about vans in general. Short Boss responded that he caters to his passengers 'simply by looking in the rear view mirror' he understands that the expectations vary between person to person, especially when they may either be elderly or a young college student. When understanding what people thought of vans in general he said that he is more concerned with what they 'know' about vans not what they 'think' about them. He wanted people to understand that they are a business on wheels and if they aren't 'hustling' then they aren't making money.
I interviewed another driver who was representing American culture on his van through the flags and the use of imagery of Barack Obama. I asked him why he chose that sort of imagery and he responded that he thought that 'the beast' which is the armored Cadillac that the president of the United States rides in was 'pretty cool'. I then noticed his van had ' The Beast' marked on the front and it all kind of made sense when I realise the art was implying that his passenger's are 'VIP'. He noticed me peaking at the markings and said " See even the President could ride in his van" which confirmed my thoughts. We then started talking about the state of the van culture in St.Vincent, he mentioned to me how it changes so fluidly, and if you are a stone in the water you simply get weathered down over the years, he continued to say that you need to flow with the river. Particular comments were made about some pressures the van drivers felt of upcoming change, but he was not worried because ' Van Culture is Creative ' any efforts to change it would just breed more creativity. His tone throughout this part of the conversation about change indicated it being a forceful change rather than a voluntary one. I was taken aback by the amount of information you could get from these drivers so readily just by hanging out next to them as they sit in their van with their arm over the window. I was left with the impression that these van drivers are so diverse and they shift gears as much as they shift roles from: businessman, pioneer, DJ, speed demon, street performer, artist, public figure and most importantly a proud Vincentian
What About The Passengers - a question to a van driver?
When asking van drivers who were the most two important passengers that he had to deal with , he often commented the elderly and the students, mostly because their ideal van experience often were the furthest divided.
The younger students definitely will tell you that they enjoy the spicy journeys that the vans have to offer. You can often find students encouraging drivers in their 'rivalries' between other vans in an overtaking competition even filming them and sending them to people like vincyvanculture on Instagram to keep a track of who won or lost. I interviewed students in the vans on the way into town and they often mentioned these following criteria as the most considerable, note in terms of rank 1 being the most important and 5 being the least:
- Cleanliness (also includes: body work, rims, tints)
The students also further commented that they view vans as a form of media when it comes to music and graphics. Many of the newest songs for carnival would be first heard in these vans and they would become almost like a 'student's news outlet' for their fix of popular media. Timely Graphics quickly ends up on the hoods of these vans as art. I would make reference to the Osama Bin Laden picture above which was quickly put on after his death. I would not be surprised one day to find the latest memes printed on the vans or even St.Vincent generating culture just from putting it on the hood of their vans, becoming more represented for the youth to grab a real hold on it.
The elderly were a little more on the calm and cruising side of preference when it comes to van service.
You would quickly notice that the vans the elderly got into often did not have graphics on them, they didn't seem to concerned with them at all. In terms of service the conductors often encouraged them to take the more comfortable seats and move around the more young and nimble adversaries. I found that the older folk were well respected when the conductors interacted with them; you have to give the conductor credit for his customer service, it's not easy being polite when you are trying to hurry people into seats and squeeze them into sardine cans while. Never the less, I did end up asking some of the elderly on their preferences for a good van experience:
The shorter list provided by the older demographic consisted of (in the same scale 1 being most important)
3. Music (although this may have been either no music or more to their taste )
While here we have a shorter list it is important to note that they both do consider speed as of relatively high importance. Speed seemed to be the most attractive criteria to the broadest range of people, gotta go fast right?
Every Hour is Rush Hour.
There is almost always a rush for certain vans, the crowds who flock towards them are flooded with so many different people it's hard to tell who is going in and who is coming out. I had several chats with people about the vans waiting where our conversations abruptly ended when we heard that rhythmic thumping in the distance which prickled their ears often indicating our end of conversation and their departure.
As we mentioned before, you can hear the vans in the distance before you can see them, and somehow the people know which one is coming. You can tell the lingering crowds sense the impeding stampede, causing a rush that if you aren't ready for you are bound to be left behind. This doesn't sound like such a bad thing until you realize these people have sometimes hours to travel home and aren't willing to spend another 15-45 minutes waiting on a van that can get them as close to their home as possible where sometimes they have another 30 minute walk or more to get to their home from where their van drops them off.
I started to imagine the bus stops in St.Vincent as if they were metro terminals in the big apple . It was interesting to see so many similarities as the vans doors close with people squeezed inside, just making it , while the others were left behind with a sad face in the distance. Just play some loud Soca music in the NYC metro, and I say us Vincentians will feel right at home.
It wasn't rare for me to marvel at the vans when you could see straight into them as people jumped in and out. There was often a general sense of 'just get this over with' which is an atmosphere you can compare to the kinds of things people do as soon as they step into their homes and drop their bags and kick off their shoes. You often see people who were waiting in the sun step into the van and sigh with relief in the same manner, forgetting all the eyes are still on them. It was a dream to photograph some of these people who didn't notice you where they are truly being themselves in a setting which is oddly beautiful.
In my final words, let us not forget what these vans actually do - and who they cater for. They are some of the most effective and hardest working Vincentians we have. You will always find one of them on the road and no matter what happens to St.Vincent, you can be sure their wheels will still be turning with the same creativity pushing them forward. Can they do what they are doing better? Yes, of course, but who can't say the same thing for themselves. Be sure to take a ride on a van or at least have a nice friendly conversation with a driver.
Take care and enjoy!