Burning Man

Published: 23 December, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 141, January, 2007

Welcome Home! Finally After a seven year wait to be able to get here, I am standing outside an astro-turf covered, converted ex-airport shuttle bus called Mossy being welcomed to Black Rock City, Nevada by the Burning Man Project Greeters. It is six o’clock in the morning, and the desert sun is just peering over the distant Black Rock Mountains, and I can already feel the heat in it. “Welcome Hoooome, Dude” an obviously very ‘happy’ bloke is walking towards me, dressed in heavy Mad Max style boots (a very reoccurring theme I find after a while), a silver tutu, heavily embroidered brightly coloured leather waistcoat, tinted goggles, and a dead beaver on his head. “Welcome, home” and throws his arms around me in a heartfelt hug.


Next to him is an eye popping young Californian lady, with trancer’s dreads, and a silver bikini, and the ever-present goggles and boots. She hands me a piece of paper entitling me to one free spanking from anyone that I care to redeem the voucher with. “Now, spread em’ on the bus for your welcome home spanking.” After my err... welcome spanking, I’m handed a railway spike and directed to a gas bottle with its bottom cut off hanging from scaffold and told to ring myself in. Some difference from the usual welcome to any festival I have ever attended, no searching security crews to be seen anywhere. There is no fence here to keep folk out, just a 3ft high orange net stretching off into the distant desert. Then again you would have to be a utterly hardcore fence hopper to get in here with no ticket, you would have to make it over the surrounding mountains and then across a couple of miles of open desert to the ‘fence’, dodging volunteers with high power binoculars and night scopes waiting to pick you up and charge you double price for entrance.   

The Burning Man Project began with an eight-foot effigy of a man being burnt on a beach in San Francisco on Midsummer’s night 1986, and as soon as this first effigy was lit, it attracted folk from all over the beach to come and see the power of a Burning Man go up in flames. The artist who conceived the idea, Larry Harvey had help from his friends, and was blown away by what went on that night. He saw the community aspect to the attraction of the spectacle of the firey figure at the centre of things, and the way the gathered strangers were sharing with each other to make those few hours more than just a big bonfire. Community is still very much at the centre of things out there in the desert 20 years after that first Burn. This is why it is known as the Burning Man Project, not a festival, it’s a project in community and people helping each other out for a common goal of the deeply spiritual (laugh if ya’ want, but it is) night of the Burn. It has long since moved from the beach, and every year thousands of extra phreeks now head into the Black Rock Mountains to a desert known as the Playa. It is a dusty, dry gypsum (basically raw plaster) lakebed as flat as a pancake for miles into the distance every direction, entirely circled by sun blasted peaks up to 9000 ft in height. The whole area is a national Park, staggeringly beautiful, heavily populated by huge multicoloured Dragon Flies, and is happy to hit 100F during the day. 15 years earlier, the first year it was held out on the Playa there were but 800 people attending, but this number has grown year upon year. You have really got to want to be here, it is officially a survival area, and this year around 48,000 REALLY want to be here, and to survive it. But not everyone does, there were three deaths out there this year. There are a couple of other things to make this community in the desert work, first off is the fact there is no cash used anywhere but the Ice shop. There are no stalls to buy from, no burger vans to rip you off, everything is run on what they call the gift economy whereby you just give and receive stuff. Thirsty? Call in to a camp bar, hungry? Go see the folks at the Pancake Palace, or Mamas Italian restaurant. Then more importantly is the freedom to express yourself as openly as you may feel. There are naked people everywhere, transsexuals, people in walking penis suits, trancers, dancers, the odd orgy, and Heads of all descriptions. It is incredible just who and what you can see in a half mile walk at Burning Man.

To survive Black Rock City (BRC) for a week, preparation is essential. Everything you need for a week in the desert must be transported with you, and much more importantly taken back out of the desert with you afterwards. Matter Out Of Place or MOOP as it is known is not tolerated at all, no grinding yer’ fag butts into the ground, you need to carry a tin ashtray with you everywhere, and everything else is sorted and recycled and taken home. Firstly and most importantly what you need is sun block, and lots of it for your tattoos, water of course, a gallon a day minimum. Food, salt replacement for what you lose through the heat, and what I realised was way more important than I imagined, a bicycle. BRC is huge and is (whilst it exists) the third largest city in Nevada and the authorities treat it as such. It has a Post Office, Ambulance service, Policing, Fire Crews, and the amazing Department of Public Works, a group of highly skilled volunteers who make the whole thing work like a real city. By the time we reached our campsite the entrance was nearly five miles behind us, and we are on the edge of a two mile wide horseshoe of tents, geodecic domes, half built wooden buildings, and giant American RVs are everywhere. The city is laid out in a block formation just like any American town or city, based upon the idea of a clock around a huge cafe, come chill out, meeting place called Centre Camp. The Man himself stands at the 12 o’clock spot with the camps circling around the 2 o’clock through 10 o’clock position, with the streets crossing the ‘time zones’ being a simple A-H with names such as Brave, Fate, and Hope. So, my address in this temporary desert city is: The City of Lost Children, 9.55 and Fate, look for the little silver tent behind the green bus called Mossy next to the giant rubiks Cube.   

The owner of Mossy, my driver, and co-organiser of where we are to camp is the veteran Burning Man (her 10th this year) and San Franciscan DJ Goldilox, to whom I’m grateful for the advice on BRC and the lift out to the Playa. I would not have made it out to Burning Man but for her and the contacts I have made through her. DJ, Producer, Photographer, Artist, old friend, originator of Craic House music (never met anyone who didn’t like her music, loads of listening at www.djgoldilox.com) and wearer of several ‘renegade’ tattoos, she was the person who really explained what the Burn was really all about, and whet my appetite to want to spend a week in a desert getting crazy. She was also the one who explained to me this term I had not heard before, a Renegade tattoo, and went on to hear, in what I thought was a surprising number of times, meant they were not done in an official studio. She was one of a number of tattooed friends along the way, which helped me decide I definitely wanted to get tattooed after thinking about it for 15 odd years. A decision which in a funny round about way led me to be standing watching two of our neighbours yelling and screaming for everyone to get the Fuck up and come get drunk with them, it’s Burning Man and the bar was open. No one seemed to be listening to them, so they brought out a couple of trumpets and loudly proved they couldn’t play them. A few folk got out of their tents and glared at the hapless musicians, and a few of them wandered over for a chat, and a drink. It was now 7 in the morning and after a 14-hour drive through the night, I’m home.   

A day later and I’ve got my bearings, my wee tent is set up, the water is stored and I’m plastered in factor 60 sunscreen. Time to take the bike out and explore the growing mobile city springing up around me. I’ve just finished helping the Lost Children put up a 30-foot wide geodecic dome during the hottest part of the day, as part of the shared space at the camp, and this has reinforced the constant need to keep water close by. So I’ve filled up my water bottle and hip flask (for medicinal use if it gets cold), grabbed my camera, and clamber onto my bike to head off into the desert, to hunt out tattoos and weirdness…   

There was no hunting required, I found both immediately. A hundred yards up the road I had to give way to a pink open top London bus with a sound system pumping out drum and bass, with a full on party of a couple of dozen partying people up on top, dancing and having a bloody good time thanks to the free bar onboard. As the dust settles a young woman cycles past me with a giant black and grey scorpion down one half of her back. She then becomes my first shot for Skin Deep at Burning Man, and happily informs me she is from Quincy, California and that her tattooist also owns a porn shop. They’re an interesting bunch these folk that call themselves Burners.   

Tattoos at Burning Man are everywhere, it seems to be normal there (about the only thing that is!) It looks like everyone has some ink on them somewhere, and there is some amazing work on display, and this is not surprising considering the lack of clothing in the desert. What I kind of notice first is the distinct lack of Tribal, and what tribal there is does not seem to be the usual black swirly stuff, but most folk here seem to be heavily into colour work, and I love it. It is almost akin to a convention from the amount of folk walking around with their ink on display. There is everything, Indonesian, American Indian, Biomechanics, New School, Old School, Japanese, Aboriginal Aussie, everything, the works. Within the 8 days I was there I must have seen a couple of million pounds worth of tattoos. The only downside of it was that many folk were also heavily tanned, so I saw first hand exactly what strong sunlight and a tan can do to a wonderful piece of body art... ruination!

There is plenty of other stuff to amaze at this place, one of the big parts of Burning Man are the art installations scattered over the whole area. These range from small pieces like a Chinese wooden dragon, to massive cavernous structures used as party spaces. For instance one of these is a big black pyramid, which on closer inspection houses a dew covered lawn with people inside lying about luxuriating of the cool wet grass. Then there is what can only be described as one of the monster machines from the War of the Worlds, a massive steel tripod with what looks like, and is being used as, a climbing frame maybe 40 or 50 feet from the ground. There are people clambering all over it in a way that would make any self respecting Health and Safety officer give up, throw their clipboard over their shoulder and walk away in a huff. The unwritten rule here is if you hurt yourself, it’s yer’ own bloody stupid fault. You will get help, but don’t whinge about what happened to you. But the most amazing structure is what everyone has nicknamed the Belgian Waffle, which apparently really pissed off the Belgian carpenters who built it, they had a name for it but it escapes me. It is a huge wooden construction that has the appearance of a massive game of Pick-up-Sticks. Thousands of 10 or 12 foot two by fours have been cleverly nailed together in what looks like a totally random fashion to create what looks like a cathedral-like cavern. It is the biggest conversation piece I have ever seen, as the entire week I hear folk talking about its air to fuel ratio, and what it will look like as it burns.   

But it nightime that Burning Man comes to its true life. As the sun starts to set the thousands of nocturnal folk that have spent the day recovering from the previous night, and have been hidden from the sun in their nice air-conditioned RVs begin to emerge. The atmosphere changes to one of pure excitement and joy for the intoxicated madness of the night ahead. Myself for one, this first night was where the week blurred itself into one long day, rendering me unable to quite put my finger one what happened on what day. There are no real schedules to events, no big name acts to go and see, things just happen here as they happen. So you load up with your water and other supplies for an evening and head out to find some fun. The charge of being drunk in charge of a bicycle just does not get a look in. Close by, the sound systems are beginning to power up, and with this the place sounds like it has a pulsing heartbeat with the out of phase beats drifting over the tents. The nearest mountain of speakers to my tent was close to a quarter mile away, and I could feel its throb through the solid ground below me, there was no holds barred with the subsonic speakers here. In the past I have seen a lot of live music at gigs and ‘festies’, a fair few outdoor parties, raves, and have many times stood in the Dance tent at Glastonbury revelling in the sound going through my body. But none of them had a patch on some of the systems I heard in Black Rock City. I suppose they can really let rip out there, as there are definitely no neighbours to complain to the council about what is going on down the road. And the whole Playa is lit up like you would never believe, like Blackpool illuminations times 50 on a 500 micron acid tab. There is neon of all colours decorating the giant geodecic dome clubs, floating strings of light climbing hundreds of feet upward seemingly attached to nothing, and every other art car that passes seems to have a flamethrower blasting sheets of flame high into the air illuminating the people on board and all around them. The largest of the flame thrower vehicles was a 40-foot long dragon, which I heard was using some 500 gallons of liquid propane a night! One group of crazies had got hold of one of those bendy buses, it was painted purple and had the whole roof converted into a dance floor come bar, accessed by a staircase built onto the side of the moving bus, and with a booth for the sound system/bar/DJs built at the on the roof at the back of the bus.   

The Saturday and Sunday nights are the nights they begin to burn things, and the place goes into overdrive. The first, on Saturday, is the Man himself. He is a 90 or so foot tall wooden man structure, covered in blue neon built on the roof of a kind of Art Deco wooden building two stories high. An impressive sight, but ten times so on the night of the Burn. Pretty much the whole festival is there, hundreds of art cars carrying thousands of people circle the Man behind the fire cordon, and tens of thousands of people are swarming around the whole area. Everywhere there is screaming, shouting and cheering, with the constantly heard heartbeat of the systems in the air all about. Within the cordon between myself and the Man have got to be upwards of 2000 fire performers spinning Poi, fans, and staffs, juggling fire, fire breathing, eating fire, playing with fire, burning fire sculptures and all this against the backdrop of lasers, searchlights, flame throwers and a sea of people, and all the neon and coloured flashing lighting you could ever imagine encircles us all. Without a doubt it is one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’m with everyone 110%.   

The start of the Burning of the Man is signaled by the Man himself bursting into a storm of sparks from the dozens of fireworks attached to him. This then continues as his raised arms slowly lower with white fire spurting from his hands, then the whole building he is mounted upon starts to shoot hundreds of rockets and starshells into the sky for a spectacular firework display. By now the gathered crowd is going absolutely buck mad, the cheers and shouts are deafening and half of them are dancing around like nutters, there are people around me in floods of tears, laughing like it was a night out from Bedlam and hugging anyone near them. And this is not one or two folk, its everyone, the atmosphere is not electric, it’s utterly ecstatic. As the fireworks start to die down, the first flames begin to work their way up the building and the Man himself, and he almost disappears in a cloud of smoke, you get the odd good glimpse of him when the slow night breeze pushes the curtain of smoke to one side. Then as the flames are over the height of his head, the Burning Man gives us something stunning to watch. From the heart of the fire comes a hundred foot tall fire tornado glowing a dull red colour, which moves out of the fire with the breeze and spins slowly across the desert away from the fire, as it gets a little way from the Man another begins to form and follow the first which is now 40 or 50 feet from the fire and starting to dissipate. After a good 10 minutes of this the Man starts to crumble to the cheers of the thousands around him and he collapses into the raging fire of the building below him bit by bit. At this a few folk start to move off into the neon horizon, the night of the Burning Man has begun, absolutely anything goes tonight. It is, to most of the folks there, as much a spiritual night as a crazy fucked up party night, a kinda cyber-pagan ritual for the 21st century.   

A couple of weeks later and here I sit writing about this disappearing city of Burners in Nevada, thinking about the friends I made, the margueritas I drank amidst the dust, and all I can say is I feel Homesick! I WANNA GO HOME!

Then again, as they say:

The Man burns in 324 days.


Skin Deep 141 1 January 2007 141