Saturday, November 26, 2011

It-tberfil Malti

The art or craft of tberfil is a Maltese style of lettering/signwriting and decoration usually associated with Malta's recently scrapped old buses. It is also practiced on other methods of transport - construction trucks, old stone quarry and farmer's carts (karrettun), horse-drawn cabins (karozzin) and horse-racing carriages (karru tat-tlielaq). The term tberfil actually refers to anything which implies some form of decoration in Maltese arts and crafts such as intricate patterns in bizzilla (lace craft) and the baroque line work of pavaljuni and bandalori (village feast banners), but is certainly more commonly associated with vehicular decoration than anything else.

Tberfil lettering showing the variety of styles used on a typical old Maltese bus.

Thanks to the bus system, tberfil was until recently one of Malta's most visible traditional arts with bus drivers personally making sure that their bus was fully and freshly decorated with tberfil's swirling flourishes and rich lettering styles. One could easily see tberfil on display in all its varieties at the Valletta bus terminus. Sadly, the recent overhaul of the bus system means that the art of tberfil has just become much less visible in Maltese streets and has been practically relegated to being seen on construction trucks and some other random personalized vans (even though karozzini and horse-racing carriages sport tberfil, the style of decoration used is much more minimal and rarely ever feature the quirky lettering and flourishes found on buses. They are also much less visible on the streets).

In light of these unfortunate developments, I recently embarked on some research into this craft. I've had this project in mind ever since I read that the bus system will be scrapped and replaced a couple of years ago but months away from the island and quick visits meant that I never really found the time to actually do anything up until now. Finally doing some research turned out to be really fun and informative. Signwriting has always been a major interest of mine and actually learning about this lovely, homegrown style was something which was long due. The research involved speaking to a few master practitioners of tberfil (some retired and some still active), observing decorating processes and trying to get some facts about the craft's history before it disappears altogether. I plan to do some additional investigating and later use this material for a graphic/anthropological project in the coming months. 

Below are some photos from the sessions thanks to Sara de la Mora.