Van Culture In St.Vincent – Road Warriors, Street Performers

Born and raised in St.Vincent and the Grenadines, West Indies, Caribbean – Stephan Hornsey became inspired working in production on photo shoots for large fashion brands. His experiences from those working with him produced priceless life lessons on what it takes to capture an image of both beauty and soul. You can visit Stephan blog here


Van Culture In St.Vincent – Road Warriors, Street Performers 

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 pictures where most of the conductors were giving me thumbs up out of their windows and the drivers were smiling through their windscreens. I then decided from there it was best to dive right into it instead of wade in the shoreline.

I soon found myself jumping into the vans several times a day often talking to people squished next to me along with their daily route. I bombarded the passengers with silly questions about how they enjoy the van services and surprisingly everyone I ‘interviewed’ in these vans was 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 behaviours, 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 won’t be able to produce their kind of art. He had to reflect their thoughts to help them understand what they wanted.

You could essentially tag him as essentially a translator, psychologist and artist all in one. I funnily imagined the van driver laying down on a couch as Galdi questioned them, 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.

A controversial image on a van of Osama Bin Laden – The driver was asked to take it off after having complaints about the image. The driver explained that he did not advocate Osama Bin Laden’s doctrine , but more so just commented that he was ” Hard to Kill ” and he thought it was worth mentioning. Picture Courtesy of Mickel Carr.

(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 spliff and some $100 bills along with it.

The stories that are on the vans represent a very core culture which is kept close to the van drivers’ hearts. Graphic art on vans is a widely underappreciated form of art in St.Vincent which is displayed to the entire population in terms of expression, but it doesn’t get the right sort of attention despite being 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”. 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 Vybez Kartel laugh a Jamaican dancehall artist 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 their own public transport, which 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 popularised by the same fears that generate that stigma: speed, loud music, provocative graphics and most notably risky behaviour 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.

It’s 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.

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.

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’ where I then noticed his van had ‘ The Beast’ marked on the front – he noticed me peaking at the markings and said ” See even the President could ride in his van”.

I couldn’t deny that it wasn’t cool and then we 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 mentioned you need to flow with the river.

He continued to comment 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 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 most divided.

The Students

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.

However many of students simply jumped in to the more trendy or (clean) looking vans just because they knew they were faster than others, I interviewed some students in the vans on the way into town and they often mentioned these criteria as the most considerable in terms of rank 1 being the most important and 5 being the least:

  1. Speed
  2. Cleanliness (also includes: body work, rims, tints)
  3. Graphics
  4. Driving
  5. Music

The students use vans as a form of popularity when it comes to music and graphics. Popular media quickly ends up on the hoods of these vans as art. I would not be surprised one day to find the latest memes printed on the vans or even Vincentian culture becoming more represented on these vans once the youth grabs a real hold on it in the years to come.

The Elderly  

While the older folk did seem to have more of a relaxed approach to getting in the vans, they certainly were not left out. 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)

1. Comfort
2. Speed
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 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.

Before you can even see the vans as the music rumbles in the distance from the large speakers, 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 in as the doors closed, and left behind. Just play some loud Soca music in the NYC metro, and I say us Vincentians will feel right at home.

Final Words

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.

 Republish with permission from Stephan Hornsey (THE LENS PEN) Orginal Article can be    found here

All photos used in this article are the property of Stephan Hornsey and used with permission.

1 Comment

  1. Day need to be more careful your hands are in there hand i just visit the island with my family and my husband was so scared of the way the driver drove day need to go at normal speed

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