Building a Tap-tap. Completing the Tap-tap. A prototype what a traditional Tap-tap.
It’s 6:32 A.M; “L’amour de Dieu” was just leaving the station of Jacmel at Portail-Léogâne downtown Port-au-Prince. On board were merchants who were trying to arrive at the markets before 8 o’clock, a family of two kids Natacha and Pierre 10 and 12 years old respectively, and three foreigners. As the trip started Natacha points out to a Virgin Mary painting inside the rooftop of the “carrosserie”. « Why is there a painting of this lady above our heads? », she asked. From that moment the young girl opened a door to a conversation that regrouped everyone who certainly was of different background and different conceptions about the illustration. The conversation ranged from topics such as religions, beliefs, gratitude, culture, which made the entire trip feels as if they just spent a moment within a museum. This was all because of an heritage that we have once cherished.
The first Tap-tap was build during the years of 1939- 1940. At that time, it was a truck named “Manman Marie “, which travelled from Petit Goave to Port-au-Prince. However, it wasn’t until the year 1959 that Péricles Arnault invented the tap-tap model that we currently have on the streets of Port-au-Prince. At his workshop came all the culture that most craftsmen continue to practice till today. Apprentices such as Jean Claude Arnault, Okel Ultimo, Therafis Louis and several others have managed to survive throughout the years. Pericles took the time to coach them and later became a mentor. Through them his work survived for decades while some improvements were made.
A few decades ago the Tap-tap was clearly more than a source of revenue to the Haitian population. From its history, one can say that Tap-tap was born from passion, creativity, utility, and tradition. For those who use it, Tap-tap is described as a very convenient public transportation. As mentioned by Ancerner Petit- Bois, the founder and president of the Association Professionel Artisant Tap-tap Autobus Haitien (APATAH) the name Tap-tap itself is derived from the ability to quickly get in and out of the vehicle, “tap ou monte, tap ou desann”. This ease and comfort that the tap-tap offers to its passengers is mandatory to the massive amount of the population that it is serving.
It is almost impossible to miss one of these tap-taps on the crowded streets of Haiti. Their colorful features and some of their humorous writings make them as vivid as a neon light. This creative method has a much greater purpose than mere decorations. Ancener Petit-Bois stated that they are used to express the owner’s feelings, which are sometimes a simple sentence such as “Amour de Dieu” or a drawing of the Virgin Mary in order to show gratitude and spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, they can also be seen as a form of mobile museum with illustrations of heroes or events that have marked our past. While they are means of transportation, they are also an extraordinary method to share and preserve part of the Haitian culture.
Looking beyond it affects to our culture, the tap-tap and autobus industry also economically impact several sectors in the Haitian society. ‘The construction of a tap-tap starts from the automobiles dealers who sales the vehicle, the retailers that supplies the paint, the hardware companies that sales the boards which sometimes is the main product used for the construction of the “carosserie”, to the craftsmen and his assistant who builds the final product. Including the government, who clearly has the right to tax and set regulations on the market. This whole cycle creates many business transactions, which in turn creates employments and opportunities for those in different social classes. Therefore, in a microeconomic point of view the Tap-tap industry has its role in our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
As prices are skyrocketing and life in Haiti has become more challenging, we have lost many of our traditions where among them is the Tap-tap. Most of the current owners no longer have the same ideologies of what the tap-tap represents to our society. The tap-tap has only kept its value as a source of revenue; all the other characteristics of this monument are left untouched. While there is only a minority who is concerned about how it is being degraded, some are still fighting to protect its original meaning. Among those who are fighting to protect what is left of what the world knew as tap-tap is the founder and some of his apprentices. Ancener Petit-Bois has pointed out several of the basic standard that the current tap-taps today are lacking. They no longer have the same comfort as they did a few decades ago. For example, the cushions that are used to protect the passengers’ clothes from the unpolished material are no longer a priority. They are using fiber glass which is cheaper to buy, instead of using the better material which is wood.
Robenson Rene also known as “boss fek paret” explained the causes of the tap-tap current situation. He stated that the demands to build tap-taps have not ceased to increased, however, what has changed is the concept that the clients are requesting. We no longer have the Tap-taps that we used to know. We now have this new name and concept that have replaced the Tap-taps ideologies. “Toya” the new name that replaced tap-taps is completely different from tap-taps in term of frame work and materials. Its body is completely made of metal instead of woods. What really matters now is how fast money can be made due to the changes in the economy in Haiti. The new generation of tap-tap owners tends to go with the Toya slogan because it is faster and cheaper. It facilitates the new owners to enter the market.
Other benefit of the metal body is the fact that it doesn’t require too much time to be built. A wooden “carosserie” will take up to 30 days or more to be completed, and cost 150,000 gourdes. Whereas the metallic version might take two to three weeks, and cost lot less to time to be completed. ‘the clients are very eager to start transporting passengers and make a living for themselves and their families. What really matters to them is to get the car on the streets” said Rubenson Rene. Furthermore, the wooden body requires a lot more maintenance than the metallic, which add up to the decrease in demand. Therefore, because of the durability of the metallic body, the amount of time it takes to be completed and the fact that it requires less artistic work than the wooden concept most owners bring their contract to an ironworker.
This leave the craftsmen with less work and an insufficient income to take care of their family members. They have tried to improve the wooden version with a stronger framework by adding metal to it and proposed it to the consumers, unfortunately, due to an even higher cost than the wooden body alone, the consolidation could not make up for the trade-off of using the metallic body. Robenson Rene mentioned that most of the craftsmen are leaving the industry; some of them find other specialization, while others leave the country whenever a possibility arises. It is clear during this period of migration, many of our talents and those who are capable of promoting and preserving one of our most iconic art are vanishing. They are disappearing without having the time to pass down the knowledge they have acquired to others. These young men could have had the same passion and desire to preserve such heritage. As mentioned before the tap-tap affects every sector in our society and it also represent an immense part of our image in the eyes of the world. ‘Without disturbing our integration within the modern world, we should preserve and promote our “tap-tap lakay” stated Ancener Petit-Bois.