El Pulpo Mecanico… The Magnificent Octopus of Burning Man

The mutant vehicle El Pulpo Mechanico lights up the night at Burning Man 2014. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

El Pulpo Mecanico doing what he does best: spout fire and entertain Burners.

He comes through the desert night with eyes bulging, jaws dropping, and eight arms flaming like an ancient god. The 26 foot tall El Pulpo Mecanico, the mechanical octopus, arrives in a cloud of dust and fire. An admiring group of Burners gather round, cameras poised. This is El Pulpo’s fourth trip to Burning Man, and he still elicits wonder wherever he goes.

The head of El Pulpo Mechanico at Burning Man 2014.

It’s hard to look at the head of El Pulpo and not imagine some ancient god. He even has his own church. (grin)

El Pulpo is a mutant vehicle or art car in the language of Black Rock City. The powerful DMV, the Department of Mutant vehicles, has licensed him. Beyond getting to campsites, Burners are not allowed to drive on the Playa or in Black Rock City without a DMV permit. And you don’t get a permit unless your vehicle has morphed into something else— like an octopus, or rhinoceros, or sailing ship, or even a push-button telephone.

Push button phone mutant vehicle at Burning Man 2014 photographed by Curtis Mekemson.

Mutant vehicles come in all shapes and sizes at Burning Man. This phone vehicle at Burning Man 2014 represents both the imagination and humor of Burners.

El Pulpo sprang from the creative imagination of Duane Flatmo, a graphic artist and mural painter who lives in Arcata, California along with his wife and fellow artist, Micki Dyson. Duane’s murals can be found throughout Eureka and Arcata. Or, if you stop off for one (or more) of the excellent beers at the Lost Coast Brewery and pause long enough to admire the labels, you are admiring Duane’s work.

The label from Alleycat Ale of the Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka California. Duane Flatmo created the label.

The label from Alleycat Ale of the Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka California.

Duane’s talents apparently include music as well. In 2006, he became a finalist on America’s Got Talent by playing a guitar with a weed whacker and an eggbeater. It would take me less than .01 seconds to destroy a guitar with my weed whacker. I suspect a bit longer with an eggbeater.

My weed whacker. I challenge any guitar to stand up to it.

My weed whacker. I challenge any guitar to stand up to it. Bring on your Martin!

Going to Disneyland as a child inspired Duane to build things from an early age. It was the Kinetic Grand Champion Race in Humboldt County that encouraged him to build things that move, however. The race, which is known as the triathlon of the art world, takes place annually and pits human-powered art sculptures against each other in a grueling 38-mile race over land, water, sand and mud between the communities of Arcata and Ferndale. Duane created the first of his 30 plus entries in 1982.

His passion for building led him to England in 2001 to participate in the TV series the Junkyard Wars where participants were challenged to create specific objects such as a car crusher from junk. Two years later he was in China participating in the Strange Vehicle Games and building a monster truck.

All of this was accomplished before El Pulpo Mecanico. Somewhere around 2005 Duane and his creative group of fellow travellers made it to Burning Man. Not surprisingly, they soon began dreaming about creating mutant vehicles.

It was in the small town of La Peñita, Mexico about 40 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, that El Pulpo was born. (It’s a pretty area; I was fishing off its shore last fall.) The Flatmos have a home there that they visit for a couple of months every year. With an idea in mind, Duane hit the streets searching for junk. Out of this junk he built the first model of El Pulpo.

Ocean north of Puerto Vallarta. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The Pacific Ocean off the coast from La Penita.

My grandson Ethan proudly displays a fish he caught on our fishing trip north of Puerto Vallarta.

My grandson Ethan proudly displays a fish he caught on our fishing trip north of Puerto Vallarta. He was lucky it didn’t catch him.

Back home in Arcata, Duane pulled together a team to help him create the giant cephalopod. Steve Gellman was brought on board to help with the fireworks and long time friend Jerry Kunkel was recruited because of his expertise in electrical work and engineering. While a number of others helped with the assembly, it is particularly important to note Bonnie Connor. She owns Arcata Scrap and Salvage, the home for most of El Pulpo’s parts.

Black and white of El Pulpo Mechanico taken by Curtis Mekemson.

El Pulpo was made out of junk gathered from the Arcata Scrap and Salvage Yard. Duane says the size of the 55 gallon drums used to make El Pulpo’s upper legs determined his whole size.

Photo of El Pulpo's head featuring salvaged parts at Burning Man 2014. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

This close up of El Pulpo’s head demonstrates his salvaged parts, including the 55 gallon drums.

The skin of El Pulpo Mechanico , like the rest of the Burning Man octopus is made from salvaged junk. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I was amused by El Pulpo’s junk yard skin. Muffins anyone?

The octopus was built on top of a donated 1973 Ford 250 4×4. A giant cam provides the muscle power— raising and lowering his eight legs, thrusting out his eight bulging eyes, and dropping the jaws on his four mouths. Neither computers nor hydraulics are used. Four fifty-gallon propane tanks provide flames for a night of fun on the Playa. The fire spouting legs and head send flames roaring out 30 feet. And here’s a final fun fact, the sound of the escaping flames can be used as a percussion instrument. Duane plays El Pulpo like a drum. And why not. Anyone who can play a guitar with a weed whacker should be able to make music with an octopus.

Four propane tanks provided El Pulpo Mechanical with fuel for his fiery performances at Burning Man. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The four 50 gallon propane tanks that fire up El Pulpo for a night. As you can imagine, keeping these tanks full is expensive.

El Pulpo Mechanico sign. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Indeed he does.

El Pulpo made his first trip to the Burning Man in 2011. What is the most fun Duane has had with his mutant vehicle ? He lists two incidents: providing transportation for Susan Sarandon as she toured the Playa and watching San Francisco firemen line up to admire El Pulpo. The head fire inspector “hit the fire buttons and giggled like a child.”

Duane and company are now in the process of creating a new mutant vehicle for Burning Man. I can’t wait to see the results.

El Pulpo Mechanico during the day at Burning Man 2014.

Even during the day, El Pulpo Mecanico is magnificent. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

El Pulpo Mechanico shown up in the air at Burning Man 2014. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Up in the air.

Fish sculpture found on El Pulpo Mechanico at Burning Man 2014.

As might be imagined, other sea creatures such as this fish can be found sharing El Pulpo’s ocean.

Fish sculpture found on El Pulp Mechanico shown at night, Burning Man 2014. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The fish at night.

Sea horse sculpture found on El Pulpo Mechanico, Burning Man 2014.

This friendly sea horse is another of El Pulpo’s companions. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Crab sculpture found on El Pulpo Mechanico, Burning Man 2014. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

As is this crab with large claws. It looks a lot like the crawdads my brother and I caught as kids and our mother boiled up for dinner. Sweet meat! Duane created this guy for the Kinetic Grand Champion Race and adapted it to El Pulpo. See this article in Popular Mechanics.

El Pulpo Mechanico line up with other mutant vehicles waiting for the Man to burn at Burning Man 2014. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A final shot of El Pulpo waiting patiently for the Man to burn at Burning Man 2014. Next blog: I will introduce you to some of the other fun mutant vehicles Peggy and I found this year at Burning Man.




37 thoughts on “El Pulpo Mecanico… The Magnificent Octopus of Burning Man

  1. El pulpo es fantastico. Those propane tanks are sitting in what appears to me to be a large watering trough.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with a Stihl weed whacker like that one. I can’t imagine trying to play guitar with it. That’s a mad skill.

    Thanks for this great post. I didn’t know about the mutant vehicles of Burning Man. Maybe someday we’ll join in the fun there. It looks great.

    • I do believe that is a large watering trough. 🙂 And I couldn’t imagine using my Stihl as a guitar pick either Bill. More mutant vehicles in my next post, including a sailing ship and a large rhino. Thanks. Curt

  2. El Pulpo must be something to see in person Curt, particularly knowing the history and backstory on its construction. I say “its” because I’m not sure of the gender. The “pulp-O” would indicate male, and given all the tinkering and pyrotechnics, it has to be a DUDE.~James

  3. The seahorse — I love the seahorse. Yes, I know that flames and fire and potential, dangerous horrors are wonderful, but look at that sweet little seahorse smile! On the other hand, I can imagine that fire inspector really, really enjoying El Pulpo. Getting to push the button was a real plus!

    What I can’t even conceive of is what this crew is going to conceive for their next project. It’ll be worth seeing, that’s for sure.

    • Interesting, Linda, I had something of the same thought about the seahorse, a counterpoint to the rest of the sculpture. And whatever the crew is going to produce, I am already convinced it will be wonderful. –Curt

    • You are welcome to join the ‘select few,’ Sue. 🙂 As you know, you and John have an open invitation. On an aside note, many of the art pieces made for Burning Man are now being installed in communities throughout the US and even the world. –Curt

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