JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a story about a Haitian tradition still flourishing, despite the big earthquake. It’s the second in our collaboration with “Frontline” and National Public Radio.
The reporter is Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money.”
ADAM DAVIDSON: One of the greatest things about walking around Port-au-Prince is the wildly decorated buses you see everywhere. In Haiti, they’re called tap-taps. They go all over the city — actually, all over the country. They’re cheap. It’s only a few cents to go across town.
Since only around 3 percent of Haitians own their own car, if someone’s going more than walking distance, they’re going by tap-tap. Tap-taps are privately owned. Each one is its own unique work of kaleidoscopic artistry.
Is there anything else here about reviving Haiti?
I’m an economics reporter with NPR’s “Planet Money,” and I wanted to solve some puzzles about these tap-taps, things that confuse me. First puzzle, what is going on with the imagery? Why are there pictures of Jesus alongside Kobe Bryant and sexy women? Why are there American flags next to Che Guevara pictures? It’s like the Haitian subconscious exploded on the side of every bus.
I asked Rockfelet Victor. He’s a tap-tap artist.
Who is this woman?
ARTIST (through translator): The portrait that you’re looking at here, well, you see it’s the portrait of an older woman. This woman is the mother of this bus’ owner.
ADAM DAVIDSON: She’s tough lady.
ARTIST (through translator): Evidently.
ADAM DAVIDSON: Rockfelet works with carpenters who hand-cut the intricate wooden windows and assistant painters who create the awesome geometric designs.
Some tap-tap owners tell them exactly what the bus should look like. Others let them use their own imagination. You might see what I see, delightful folk art.
No way, says Rockfelet, who went to art school for a while. Tap-tap art is as worthy as anything you see in a gallery.
ARTIST (through translator): I told you about the surrealism. You will find there’s the Baroque movement, too. You will find the expressionist, realism, naturalism.
ADAM DAVIDSON: Exploring no fewer than five different schools of art on the side of a bus is pretty good business. Three-quarters of Haitians make less than $60 per month.
ARTIST (through translator): Ordinarily, when the client asks you to outline a bus for him, the minimum price is $600. But to paint the bus itself, the minimum price is $1,200.
ADAM DAVIDSON: This is an even bigger puzzle. Why do tap-tap owners pay more than most Haitians make in a year to put some wild colors and pictures on the sides of their buses? You might say, well, it’s a tradition. But it’s a very costly tradition in a really poor country. Some drivers told me they get their buses painted every few months.
I asked one owner, Patrick François, why he does it.
TAP-TAP OWNER (through translator): If it doesn’t look nice, people will not get on it.
ADAM DAVIDSON: Tap-tap competition is vicious, complete with dancing recruiters. In seconds, you notice painting really is good for business. Painted tap-taps pull up, load passengers in a few quick minutes, and move off. There are pickup trucks going the same route, and they just sit there, no passengers.
Now, you might think, well, pickups are less comfortable. But that can’t be it, because, when pickups are painted, they do swift business, too.
Patrick Telusma is unlucky enough to drive an unpainted pickup.
PICKUP TRUCK DRIVER (through translator): One can read into the skill of a driver from the exterior of the vehicle in question.
ADAM DAVIDSON: How can someone know how good a driver is just by looking at what’s painted on the side of the bus?
I think Patrick is talking about the economic theory of signaling. There is almost no oversight of these buses, no DMV inspectors. With little information, passengers have to decide in an instant which bus will get where they’re going and which might break down.
My theory is that passengers — and this probably happens subconsciously — figure that someone who pays that much for expensive painting on the outside is also paying to keep up their brakes and transmission on the inside.
Of course, for some, it might be simpler than that. Maybe it’s just a lot of fun to spend some time in a wildly painted tap-tap.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Haiti, tonight’s edition of “Frontline” looks at how the government and the international community responded to the devastating earthquake.