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.
37 thoughts on “El Pulpo Mecanico… The Magnificent Octopus of Burning Man”
This Burning Man thing is looking more and more like a science fiction movie. I’m half expecting to see Tom Cruise battling El Pulpo in your next post!
Sci fi, fantasy, adult fiction, chick lit, mystery— it has it all Carrie. Plus a full ration of imagination. 🙂 –Curt
Wow, this is fun after my own heart. We had great fun creating the rocket for our youngest daughter’s 5th birthday party. One of the invitees bought his pyjamas.
I am blown away by the imagination of Duane and his crew. I think he may be a genius of fun. Did you shoot your rocket into the air? 🙂 –Curt
No, but we had electrical controls which lit up and recorded sound effects, so the kids (age 4-5) could could pretend in various roles. My daughter invited her reception (pre first year) school teacher, who gamely turn up and climbed in.
Kudus for the teacher. Sounds like you had a great rocket ship for your kids. That, plus their imagination, and they could fly anywhere in the universe. –Curt
Almost like a Hindu God of Bali. A magical tour again.
Sort of like those deities that peer out at you out of the jungle. I still have visions of them from my visit to Bali ever so long ago. –Curt
I particularly like the the sea horse, ‘will never look at scrap metal the same way:)
Amazing isn’t it. Duane has to be a genius at using junk. 🙂 –Curt
I think that sums it up, Cindy. 🙂 –Curt
Well, if you didn’t already have fifty reasons to return next year, to see what Duane dreams up next would be enough. Great post and photos!
Thanks AC. I am thinking about driving over to Arcata (about two hours away) and checking out what Duane is up to before next year. –Curt
The guy’s a creative genius! Absolutely astounding. Bet it’s quite something to see it all afire! Great post Curt.
Thanks Alison. And I totally agree. It has to be genius. –Curt
Curt, (laughing) I open every post of yours wider-eyed than the last time.
That’s a good thing. LOL
You bet. You’re the only blogger to do this, at least to these small eyes. =)
Important small eyes. 🙂
Ha ha ha ha
He is amazing.. I also marvel at the logistics involved in getting these pieces to and from Burning Man..some people’s creativity knows no bounds and this artist is no exception!
Takes a semi to move that puppy around. He’s been all the way to Canada. 🙂 –Curt
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
It is magical! Peggy
A wonderful beast, indeed!
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
I am thinking guy, James. La Pulpa wouldn’t be quite the same. 🙂 Curt
How did I ever miss this one, I’ve got to hit the follow button again (I’ve had to do it on a number of sites – just up and lost them somehow)
Welcome back, GP! That happens to be the motto of Burning Man, as well as my blog. 🙂 –Curt
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
It almost seems a shame that all that creativity goes into something that will only be seen by a (large, I will admit) select few.
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
The mechanical creations are magnificent and so is the fish your grandson caught. Were you able to enjoy it beachside for dinner?
Locals ended up eating the fish, sigh. 🙂 But it was worth it watching Ethan land the fish, with a little help from Dad.