2013 was a great year for pranks, too

Subway token 1Is it just me, or is too much attention being paid to the Art at Burning Man?

Yeah yeah, I know:  it’s an art event, we love art, we love artists, fire is awesome, blinking lights are cool, and giant churches tilted at 45 degree angles are just what we were missing in our lives.

I agree.

But the fact that there’s art at Burning Man sometimes overshadows the fact that art is *one of the things* you find there.  And so far I haven’t heard nearly enough people talk about the whimsy.

You know:  The pranks, the tricks, the inspired moments of lunacy that make you fall in love with people all over again.  The stuff the Org doesn’t fund … because who in their right mind would pay for a guy to stand outside a party pretending to be security and searching people’s backpacks for stolen bicycles … but that we do for its own sake.  Because we want to live in a world where this happens.

2013 was actually a very good year for whimsy at Burning Man.  I saw a lot of creative, topsy-turvy, and otherwise insane human interactions that make me feel good about life.  Whoever these 68,000 people who came out to the desert were, some of them were high-caliber tricksters.

So I’m going to take this time to list some of my favorite whimsical events that happened at the 2013 Burning Man, and I hope you’ll use the comments space to mention all the hilarious moments I know I missed.

Top honors, for my money, has to go –  just has to – to Whatsblem the Pro, who in a moment of divine inspiration decided to pretend to act like law enforcement official (without ever identifying himself as one) and see if he could get permission from Burners to search their cars … while he was wearing a full-on Santa costume.

It was stunning how many Burners just assumed that a guy who acted like a cop had the authority to detain them … even when he had no ID, was dressed like Santa, and his deputy was a guy sitting in a tent.  More than just hilarious, it was a learning experience for a lot of people involved.

But while some pranks can thrive on inspiration, others require a lot of planning.  My idea to cover the Facebook “thumbs up” with printed out Facebook ads came just too late.

Others were brilliantly prepared.

Only “Santa Cop” could possibly have knocked the Black Rock City Subway System out of the top spot.  This was a beautifully well thought out prank:  official looking metal signs were put up in camps around the Esplanade announcing that burners with tokens could find the entrance hole and ride the underground subway system across the desert – the absolutely fastest way to get from here to there.

Subway token side 2And THEN they distributed fancy wooden tokens.  For the whole week camps with subway signs posted had to tell Burners looking for the entrance hole that … um … it was over there.  Go look over there.  Yeah, just past the light.


Less epically done, but nonetheless spot on, were the signs posted mid-week on portapotties around the playa saying that in-toilet security cameras had been installed for your protection, as per the Homeland Security Act.

I wish I’d thought of it.toilet-cameras warning sign

Then of course there was a BMIR tradition that I was proud to take part of:  on the night of the Burn they put out lighted construction cones, send station personnel out with shovels and hard hats, and close part of the Esplanade down in order to fix a broken water main.  A couple of other people order other Burners to keep clear of the area.


But the best part was when all our activity finally brought a Ranger over.  I was holding the megaphone at the time, so he walked up to me.

“HI THERE!” I said to him.

“Yeah, listen,” he said.  “About that broken water main …”


“I heard on the radio that the water’s gotten into the subway system, so, you’ll probably have to expand your perimeter.”


That Ranger is my hero.

And that’s my short-list of great pranks at Burning Man 2013.

I’m sorry if I missed your act of whimsy … I would have loved to have been there.  Please tell us what you saw and what you did below.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man stands around other people’s camps asking if they’ve been told about “The Secret.”  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

46 Comments on “2013 was a great year for pranks, too

  • BunnyHop says:

    The pranks were some of the best parts of BM this year! Our camp was lucky to get our prank permit from the Department of Pranks. All of our scheduled pranks went off without a hitch. It doesn’t matter that they weren’t surprising, surprises can be dangerous. I’m all in favor of the ban on non-permitted spontaneity.

    Best year EVER !

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  • Tinkle Blinkle says:


    i volunteered this year at the department of pranks. many of the permit applicants had to be denied because they just went too far. too many proposed pranks would cause confusion and even embarrassment amongst the people being pranked, and possibly hurt feelings. to the people who had their applications denied, we’re very sorry, but please be understanding of other people’s feelings.

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  • Diver Don says:

    We had the oppertunity to help a young lass find a left bike pedal. One of our nieghbors would stop random folks asking if they used both their pedals while cruising down the street. He’d ask for a demostration and suggest since they only used the left pedal 50% of the time, they should let him have it.
    In the end he never got a left pedal, but watching folks attempt to pedal just right footed was worth the effort. (go ahead and give it a shot next time you are on your bike.)

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  • Toilet cam sign? Beautiful. Gorgeous. Inspired.

    I also liked on the “Department of Misinformation” signs that hidden amidst all the accurate camp locations on the map were things like “24/7 Free Ice Cream”

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  • M Otis Beard says:

    Thank you for your kind and generous comments, Caveat, and for participating in the struggle to keep Burning Man potentially confusing and lesson-laden!

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  • Jason says:

    The folks who made the Bathroom Beacons had little wooden tokens made up similar to the subway tokens. These tokens were “jump to the head of the line” tokens for using the portapotties. At the conclusion of the visit, the user was instructed to hand it to the next person in line (ew).

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  • debby says:

    There was a woman dressed almost like a cop near Esplanade and 8:30, getting bikes to pull over so she could hand them citations… for how they were dressed: she was part of the fashion police.

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  • Ev says:

    I got a laugh out of people stopping their bikes and waiting for a set of fully functional traffic signals to give then “permission” to proceed. Around 7:30 & B.

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  • factoid says:

    I heard of – but did not see – an official-looking piece of equipment in deep playa labeled “WiFi hotspot” – around which many confused and frustrated burners could be seen peering into their smartphones. Post a pic if you know of one!

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  • Erick says:

    I was DJing for our camp (Tectonic at 7:00 and Esplanade) on the night of the Burning of the Man. Right in the middle of the peak of my set and as the Man was exploding, the familiar sounds of Rick Astley started playing over the speakers. For about 10 seconds I was utterly confused. Did I have a bad MP3? Radio signals interfering? Had the angels of sound cursed me? No. I looked over and there was my buddy Talik with his head out the bus window where the amps were powered, fist pumping to “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Yes, we got Rick-Rolled at the Burning of the Man. So full of awesome!!

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  • Not my usual Playa Name says:

    I couldn’t go this year, which made it the perfect year to pay for the ice to fill our friend’s evap pond with block ice on Sunday. Happy minion reported, “Mischief managed!”

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  • Firetiger says:

    Whoever created those Daft Punk laminates is my prank hero this year. The design was perfect and they were HUGE.

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  • Greeter Dan says:

    I still don’t know if this was a prank or not: Signs posted in the bank of porta-potties on 6/F that warned participants of possible snakes that had arrived on playa via stowing away in containers. Was that real?

    As far as broken water mains go, that reminds me of a priceless moment from Burning Man 2000. Walking down a back street of Black Rock City one night, I saw an actual broken water main in the middle of an intersection. As in, there was a pipe, and actual water spouting out of the ground. Being that I was tired, and not quite mentally arrived on the playa at that point, I started to walk by, thinking, Well, that’s inconvenient. And then it hit me. To this day, that’s one of my all-time favorite pranks.

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  • G says:

    Diver Don
    I saw a bike without a left pedal somewhere out there . . . . .

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  • Dactylion says:

    I saw the toilet snakes signage this year, and that was about it. A friend of mine did a couple of days pretending he was part of the Playa Landscaping Crew, with official looking overalls and a leaf blower that spewed bubbles!
    BRC needs more of this! Whatever next years art theme is, I hope it lends itself well to pranksterism.

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  • Dave Rabbitt LeClair says:

    The porta potty notice was done by a Seattle burner.

    Did anyone else notice the big orange inflatable cone from Disorient made its way to the other side of the playa on Saturday? This prank was also done by Seattle burners.

    I saw a bicycle with a working wall clock on it. Many people don’t want to know the time at BRC.

    A red carpet was unrolled in front of a porta potty and a crowd stood around it. One the occupant exited, he was greet by cheers and handed a microphone to give a speech.

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  • Tony C. says:

    i can not stop laughing

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  • Vikki the Viking says:

    I was given VIP entrance to a porta potty… my “valet” opened the door for me, handed me TP and a wet wipe, and wished me well…

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  • You're pretty says:

    Who saw or participated in the carrot protest of the billion bunny march? Animal control gets involved and uses carrots as bunny bait before tagging the bunnies. There were even kids out on the playa with big fish nets eager to wrangle rabbits.
    One of my favorite large scale shenanigans!

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  • Laura F says:

    You’re Pretty:
    I was in the Man’s spaceship at the time of the carrot/bunny protest march. One of my favourite things was seeing the two crowds march at each other until they merged; it was hilarious.

    Also not quite a prank, but the most beautiful whimsy that I witnessed, was a chap near to Esplanade and 6 called ‘Captain Flash and the Save the Unicorn Video Game’, who was sat there with a picture frame and stuffed animals on sticks (including a unicorn), in front of a console with two joysticks on it. Watching him act out his game for two little girls ‘playing’ it was brilliant fun.

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  • roberto dobbisano says:

    the amplified tickle me elmo doll at the temple.


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  • Dan says:

    I was accosted on on D near 7:30 by the pastie police, helping rid the city of exposed nipples and given a red glittery triangle to stick on one nipple. I guess leaving the other one exposed was perfectly ok?

    I happened to be on my way to give a lecture at the Center Camp spoken word stage so of course I left the pastie on for my lecture, nobody ever asked for an explaination.

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  • Dan says:

    Also it might have been Thursday night someone set up traffic lights on 7:30, there was of course a bullhorn directing traffic to obey the signals and someone else was comically attempting to issue tickets to scofflaws.

    The signals were up for the entire week but I only saw it being “enforced” one night.

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  • 24/7 says:

    My all time favorite is the massive bank of fake porta-potties. That, and the potties that play Christmas tunes when you open the lid.

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  • Billy V Vaughn says:

    My favorite sign was a “FOX NEW ARCHIVES” posted on a BlueRoom.

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  • 4ward says:

    I made the Daft Punk VIP laminates! I spent much time making them look as authentic as possible, including a serial number hologram. Received great feedback from those who wore them. Ninety percent knew it was a gag but the rest bought it hook line and sinker.

    Here is a facebook album of the images.

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  • H.O.T. says:

    Well, I hope all of you Voted Revolucion for Mayor from the United Unicorn Communist Party and not his opponent who was handing out among other propaganda, “Privatize Black Rock City $” pins. B/c otherwise all these shenanigans will get shut down once this city is privatized….when the Bureau of Misinformation will have to start giving out real information this are going to get messy.

    My favorite shenanigan is still from 2008, the American Dream, as my buddies and myself cranked up the lawn mower at dawn to cut the grass. You know, b/c we had to get our allowance. Mind you that remember, 2008 was exceptionally dusty to begin with, never mind our noise and dust machine waking up the neighbors at the only time of day when it wasn’t dusty, and was actually kinda quiet. But, some clever neighbors probably had the best joke of all. Being from Mexico, they were excited to finally have someone to mow their lawn, but, alas, all of us whitebacks kept stealing their lawn chairs so they were reluctant to keep hiring us. Good times indeed.

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  • Michelle says:

    My favorite is from 2010 when a friend of mine handed out stickers and he would tell people that you could take the sticker to the Wendy’s in center camp and get a free frosty. Or you could take the sticker to Arby’s and get a free curly fries. He went up to a now friend, virgin burner at the time, and told her to take the sticker to the McDonald’s in center camp and get a free McMuffin. She drug her then boyfriend (now husband) and searched for an hour in Center Camp. Good times!

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  • This Guy says:

    Somewhere in my neighborhood of 7:30, a guy was playing “All Night Long,” by Lionel Richie, all night long. A guy in a serious-bondage-dome got physically violent with the camp that was doing it. The (visibly shaken) guy came over to us and talked about his encounter. It just so happened that every single camp surrounding this serious-bondage-dome had a sound system. So, for the entire week, from Saturday pre-event until that camp had torn down and left, a different camp played “All Night Long,” all night long, with the speakers aimed directly towards the serious bondage dome.

    Point of the story is, don’t get physically violent at Burning Man over a stupid prank or else we’ll make the prank REALLY stupid. The guy was only intending on playing “All Night Long,” all night long, for one night. It became nine nights, thanks to Mr. Confrontational.

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  • Tower says:

    The Space Cowboys stole Distrikt’s horn for one day!

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  • Dom aka "Dom" says:

    As one of the Carrots and a participant in the protest (one of the drummers) I am glad people liked our bit of whimsy on the playa…. it was a sickening amount of fun as always, I love the looks on the faces of the new participants in the Bunny March, they almost do not know what to make of it when we show up.

    I have to say though…. whoever came up with the subway idea (and helped its link go viral prior to the Burn… I saw it everywhere) are all sorts of genius…. well done…. well done indeed.

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  • starbuck says:

    730/A – traffic lights… cult of bob

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  • Lars says:

    The Red carpet treatment at the Porta Potties is a schtick by Animal Control called “trophy camp”, and is still probably my fav thing I’ve been involved in on playa.

    I think it was 2010 that a manhole cover showed up in the middle of Gigsville. Was a nice conversation piece during the week. I think at the end of the week someone finally pryed it up with a crowbar…but my memory gets hazy around there. I don’t remember what was underneath. I certainly enjoyed it.

    During our 12 hour exodus in 2011 (also one of my fav burning man days ever oddly enough), my sister and I self proclaimed ourselves the porta potty police and spent over an hour requiring stupid human tricks, smooches, armpit tongue baths, songs, etc for admittance into one set of portapotties. We also kept the tp stalked & everyone’s hands sanitized. We had a bunch of folks ask us about the status of the line, traffic, and yes “are you really part of the Burning Man organization”?

    I got a sweet “Expressodus” pass this year for the VIP line, so no more 12 hour waits for me!

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  • ~e says:

    Hey Caveat, you shoulda stuck around longer. We had wifi and a printer. Just Sayin.

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  • G says:

    in 2004 my camp neighbors literally put up a wooden gate across the road that could be raised or dropped. they were stopping people declaring themselves the Homeland Security checkpoint, basically using the occasion to hand out swag get to know people.
    Of course they had a megaphone (not one of my favorite things on the playa ) The best part was these make believe security guys would chase the unfriendly scofflaws that blew through the checkpoint. Most of the captured pursuees were then cordial and friendly and I do say only most. A few were incurably grumpy and uncoperative, and in some ways they were the most fun.

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  • MK says:

    In 2012, late on Thursday night in Deep Playa, a uniformed man stood on the other side of the trash fence, in front of an official-looking white pickup truck, “guarding” the perimeter. Friendly but firm, he reminded the gathering crowd that they were not supposed to go beyond the trash fence or even touch it, and when people shamelessly touched the fence right in front of him, he admonished them in playful mock horror. We watched him work the crowd for about 20 minutes, then he got in his pickup truck and took off toward the horizon.

    Was that a real officer? We never did decide for sure.

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  • Matthew says:

    I had a few great laughs this year:

    1. I drove around on my bike hauling a large speaker, out of which I played a recording of a baby crying. The little guy was wailing and sobbing loudly. It’s not a sound you hear often on the playa. Many heads turned and people emerged from RV’s to look. LOTS of laughter, a few truly upset women and occasional shouts of “That’s brilliant!”. Had lots of fun doing that. Might have been an ongoing Burn highpoint for me.

    2. When I went to use the porta-potties to poop I took my iPhone and a large bluetooth speaker. While inside I loudly played occasional samples of a toilet flushing, exotic birds squawking and barking dogs. I never played too many at once and it was impossible to pinpoint exactly where they were coming from. I hard many interesting conversations and audible confusion outside from people who were trying to figure out what was going on.

    3. I wore a set of Billy-Bob teeth around the playa, while acting rather insane and goofy. They had a way of really transforming the look of my face. I ran into people I knew and camp mates, none of which knew who i was. I ended up having some extended conversations with folks who didn’t know they knew me. It was lots of fun.

    Though Burning Man is always a laugh riot at our camp, this year I awakened to the notion of comedy as a form of playa conceptual “art”. Plan on doing more next year.

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  • Schmooze says:

    Was it just me or did you notice how many people had been directed to”Events” at 1 o’clock and the trash fence? Totally screwed up the subway schedule and it was completely impossible to get any sleep.

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  • REMEDY says:

    Discussing with a campmate how the theme is always so obscure, so what if next year it was just: CATSSS. We then proceeded to tell everyone that next years theme was CATSSS. Peoples responses? “Next years theme is CATS?!?!”

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  • Jeffz says:

    I ran security for Hookahdome and Beats Antique played last night and announced the long standing joke of, “Daft Punk will be playing tonight at 12 and trash fence”. I had so many people come up to ask me directions…because if Beats says it then it must be true! Some other nicer burners would tell people (after I gave directions) that they weren’t really playing and they wouldn’t believe them :D

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  • Connie says:

    One year there was a posting in the What Where When that a Pranksters meeting was going to take place at dawn one day at the farthest corner of the trash fence. Apparently some people actually showed up…

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  • Katniss says:

    I was riding a bicycle without a left pedal….
    I loved the traffic lights posted at 7:30 and c! i was sad to find not moop fishers this year.

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  • Zippo says:

    I was very upset to learn that Santa was not real. The only day I was up around breakfast time I found an event in the where, what, when, of santa doing bacon and eggs. After getting ready, keeping on schedule, arriving early, tracking down the hard to find camp, we got a “santa isn’t real, go away.” Heartbreaking good fun.

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  • CrushIT says:

    In 2012 My fiance saw a dubstep a capella performance in the WWW. We took our whole crew all the way across the city in a rush to get there on time. When we found the camp we were relieved to discover that we hadn’t missed it and the show would start any moment. When the boys started their set it was all just puking noises and crazy bleh bleh blehs… It felt good to be tricked. We all left in search of more craziness

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  • lisious says:

    Help, Last year I volunteered for kwong chew at the playa school. We served the volunteers that catered the RICH! I did not know what i was was getting into. I was told that is would be volunteering 6 hours but it was like 11 to 12 hours each day. My sister and brother came every day and saw how it was more like Hells Kitchen and finally took me away… Now Kwong Chew is suing me for leaving early. he made a profit and now he trying to make one off me, he already made one from a friend and the courts awarded Chew over a grand…. This is wrong….help….. Plus I heard that he got caught trying to smuggle in two at the gate during a supply pick up….How can i prove that?

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  • BIBO says:

    A few years back, one of the larger theme camps whose leader was upset with the org over something or other, printed 10,000 coupons for a Free Coffee or other drink at Center Camp and distributed them throughout the week.

    Needless to say, recipients of the coupons were very upset to learn upon trying to redeem them at the Center Camp Cafe that they were not real. Also, I’m sure the folks at the cafe were none too happy with that prank, either!

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