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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.