When Burning Man first moved to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, there was hardly any structure and certainly no roads like we know today. In fact, there were so few people on playa that driving wasn’t an issue. When our population grew to several thousand people all congregated together, though, driving became more dangerous. In 1996, there were a number of vehicle vs person accidents, including one with an intoxicated driver running over two occupied tents. Serious injuries resulted, and an already questionable situation was pushed over the edge. It became clear that free-for-all driving wasn’t compatible with a primarily bike- and pedestrian-oriented city. The city was also ready for some more organization that made driving less workable, and less needed.
“Art cars” had been a part of the Black Rock City (BRC) culture since the early years on the playa, and no one wanted to see that go away, even if most driving would. So starting in 1997 only art cars were allowed to drive the streets of BRC. At first, you could drive if you were driving an art car, and if you were driving something else, you were asked to stop. After a couple years of this, it became apparent that a little more organization and planning was needed, and the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV), then a part of the Rangers organization, was formed.
The DMV’s goal was to license art cars to drive, the logic being it would be better to determine if something was indeed an art car before it started driving around instead of after the fact. Jewelz Cody, having been in the Houston Art Car scene for many years already, took on the task of heading the DMV. In 1999, the DMV used its first stickers to license art cars, which were the iconic round BRC stickers, such as you find on cars to mark the country they are from, and you sometimes see on BRC citizens’ cars today. Over the years the licenses evolved and became more complex, as did many of the components of the DMV.
Around 2002, the number of art cars looking to be licensed started to outgrow the number of moving vehicles the infrastructure of the city could handle, and (as only made sense) the DMV started to focus on licensing only quality art cars, and not just anything someone claimed to be an art car, or other vehicles such as hot rods or custom cars.
To help clarify this distinction, in 2003 the DMV refined the criteria of what would now be called “Mutant Vehicles”, art cars unique to Burning Man. Burning Man’s protocols define a Mutant Vehicle as “a unique, motorized creation that shows little or no resemblance to their original form, or to any standard street vehicle. Mutant Vehicles are radically, stunningly, (usually) permanently, and safely modified from their base vehicle. Sometimes the whole vehicle is made from scratch. Mutant Vehicles may include such non-standard motorized forms such as furniture, other non-street vehicles such as a boat or train, animals, or just about anything imagin
The process of drawing that (admittedly gray) line has been evolving ever since, as every year more and more people create better and better Mutant Vehicles, while the number of vehicles the city can handle remains roughly the same. While some mistakenly believe the DMV is arbitrarily making stricter rules for the quality of Mutant Vehicles, in actuality the bar has been raised by the vehicle creators themselves. The DMV’s job is to keep up with the artists, and attempt to pick the best to license.
In 2004 we started to require vehicle owners to pre-register their vehicles and apply for a license online before coming to Black Rock City. This not only made the on-playa process much quicker, allowing more time to drive vehicles instead of registering them, but also helped to avoid a situation where people might bring their vehicle all the way out to Burning Man only to be told they couldn’t drive it.
The mission of the Black Rock City Department of Mutant Vehicles is to enable Burning Man participants to share their Mutant Vehicle creations with the community of Black Rock City, and to license vehicles for use by disabled participants.
Being the only department to have to tell people they can’t bring their art to the playa can be a very tough job. However, we take solace in the fact that if there were no DMV, there would be no Mutant Vehicles at Burning Man. We work hard to communicate as best we can with the Mutant Vehicle owners, who we consider our customers. We have been refining our messages and processes over the years, and hope and believe the community is being better served because of it.
Cover image of Sharkmobil, 2003 (Photo by Dana Bishop)