Early Man: Proto-DPW

Back when the Man’s knuckles still scraped the ground as the Earth’s crust cooled, there was no official setup and cleanup crew. There was no official anything. As the years have gone on — this writer joined the DPW in 1998 — we have built from scratch an annual temporary city and a rock-solid worldwide society, fanning out over the ‘90s and ‘00s from amorphous clumps of mayhem into an intricately-designed temporary autonomous zone requiring some half-zillion volunteers who come early to set up the whole thing, and a full zillion DPW and Gate/Perimeter folks to make Restoration happen. (Which we used to just call “cleanup,” but that wasn’t specific enough.)

this was Collexodus - this and two of us in the Bucket car, rolling through the streets begging for food & water through a megaphone
this was Collexodus – this and two of us in the Bucket car, rolling through the streets begging for food & water through a megaphone

Not to toot our collective clown horns too much, but even governments and disaster-relief agencies come to Burning Man leadership for protocol now in building and striking large sets, organizing masses of people and traffic, and crowd control for people who generally don’t like being told what to do.

Hordes of #Occupy organizers from around the country were calling in to the Burning Man offices during the height of #OccupyWallStreet, asking advice on how to move and maintain the throngs of GenXers and millennials who flooded the streets seeking change. A lot can happen with a countercultural movement if you start with a blank slate and a bunch of kinetic energy.

We come to Burning Man to slam into something harsh — to make ourselves tougher. Some go harder than others. Those who go hardest pick up the inevitable detritus left behind.

From the very beginning, in 1990 and 1991, wee tiny Burning Man was a Leave No Trace event — an idea which originated with the Cacophony Society’s parent organization the Suicide Club. (To keep up, realize the Cacophony Society is the direct inspiration for Project Mayhem in Chuck Pahlaniuk’s book Fight Club.)

“You don’t trash the alien world you’re visiting – the world you’re creating,” Burning Man co-founder John Law told us.

art by Kevin Evans

Early Cacophony Society zone trippers who brought the Burning Man to the desert adhered to Leave No Trace on all their outings. Cacophonists first just insisted people pick up their butts, even though it was not as popular as being cool and even though the desert was already strewn with litter from other campers.

“The reasons were twofold,” says Law: “One, it was the right thing to do, and two, we realized we were gonna need moral standing with officials.” He intentionally wanted to inculcate people with this idea in the groupthink, as did Danger Ranger, Vanessa Kuemmerle, and the early Rangers of Black Rock.

“In Suicide Club, our whole thing was don’t trash the place when you go into zones,” Law says. “You enter, respect, and exit the environments you’re exploring.”

Some in the DPW used to be unruly outcasts, hardcore roustabouts, and felonious outsiders — the types of people who would be nuts enough, and sporadically-employed enough, to gravitate towards grueling labor in a searing flat-pan lakebed. We didn’t know how to take care of ourselves, and the infrastructure wasn’t quite as hashed out, so we made it up as we went along. We learned to demand what we discovered we lacked, in this harshest of environments.

here's us and the Bucket - DPW's first staff car - getting ready to beg on behalf of DPW in what would later become Collexodus, which is how Burning Man can afford to feed the workers cleaning up the city - by supplementing it with your donations. it takes a village
here’s us and the Bucket – DPW’s first staff car – getting ready to beg on behalf of DPW in what would later become Collexodus, which is how Burning Man can afford to feed the workers cleaning up the city – by supplementing it with your donations. it takes a village

Things are much smoother these days, though the legends of crusty scallywags remain. But hey: Sometimes we DPWers used to be cranky because we were hungry, or because of unsafe working conditions, or acute workaholism. We hadn’t even seen or read Fight Club when we discovered we were already in it. It’s just an itch Generation X has, to grow into sovereignty via serious play, like puppies wrestling with each other before they become wolves.

The Department of Public Works, proud builders of Black Rock City, are so well-cared-for now, it’s not an issue any more. We lived through the transition-to-organized-event years. Here’s the thing: Before our time, in the early-to-mid-‘90s, literally everyone left the desert after Burning Man but a few people — and they had NO structural support but each other.


We wondered who the original workers were, before our time in ’98 — the proto-DPW people who stayed behind to clean up after the party. They deserve credit, so this writer asked John Law and then Michael Mikel, two co-founders of Burning Man, for some names.

Michael Mikel, a.k.a. Danger Ranger, is still one of the six LLC members of the Burning Man Project. John Law left the organization in 1996 and has co-written Tales of the SF Cacophony Society, a thick history book, with other co-originators Carrie Galbraith and Kevin Evans, whose art from the book is featured in this article.

John Law and Michael Mikel in particular have done world-changing work with Survival Research Laboratories, the Cacophony Society, and the Billboard Liberation Front — as well as co-founding Santarchy / Santacon (the first “flash mob”) along with another man, the mysterious “Chad Mulligan.” Annnnnnnd other things, too many to list.

John Law, fireball catalyst and international man of mystery, used to be Operations Manager out at Burning Man, back when they first had to give themselves titles so they could talk to the cops and not sound like dirty punk rock new-waver machine artists who didn’t know what they were doing.

“We didn’t call it DPW til after I was gone,” Law said. “We just joked about it. ‘Shit work,’ that’s what the Department of Public Works does in any city.”

“The first year through around the fourth year was all Suicide Club people out there,” Law says. “Michael Lyons was also the entire medical staff for the first couple years. Harley DuBois, Vanessa Kuemmerle, Louise Jarmilowicz, Dan Miller, P Seagal, Kimric Smythe, Chris Campbell, Circusboy Tym Simpson, Kevin Evans, Sebastian Hyde, Dale Scott, Neil Friedman, “Big Bob,” Joe Ulmer, Chris Radcliffe — I’m sure there are more — up til ’93 or 94, that was the crew.”

mad max cars are def the best part about being dpw, not gonna lie
mad max cars are def the best part about being dpw, not gonna lie

Chris DeMonterey, Robert Rogers, and Janelle Schmidt were mainstays of Early Man shenanigans then. “All were majorly invested in organizing the event, in setup and in cleanup – what you’d call DPW now,” John Law says.

“Robert and Janelle made it into the proto-organization before DPW. Around ’94 guys like Circusboy came in. Flynn Mauthe, the real DPW leader for the growth years, came on in ’95. Australian Neil was a huge cleanup help in ’94-’95, along with Flynn, Skitch, and Fat Chick Rick. Robert Rogers and then Flynn made DPW into the organization it is. Chris DeMonterey and Circusboy were the first biggest helpers.”

“Jesse Wack and other Hard Times Bike Club and Cyclecide Bike Rodeo members came with Cirkus Redickuless and the Know-Nothing Circus. They were the first real DPW, in ’95 – though the term came later. Flynn set the stage for Tony Coyote to come in and cheerfully rule things, loosely but tightly. Cyclecide and the Hard Times Bike Club were the grunts cleaning up in ’96.”

San Francisco catalyst and Cirkus Redickuless ringmonster Chicken John was a hardworking DPW type who wore various hats, including one he stole from the Rangers. Cyclecide co-founders Jarico Reesce and John Joyce ring-led the bike freaks to an extent.

Pedal Camp became the place to be, an official camp, in ’95 or ’96, with Jarico, Big Daddy, Dannygirl Waters, Ratgirl, Loid Mongoloid, Phat Man Dee, David Apocalypse, and other members of the Heavy Pedal Cyclecide Bike Rodeo out of San Francisco (which this writer joined in ’98 as well) and the Cirkus Redickuless. Demilitia, Zsuzs, Mateo Extra Action, Johnny Feral, and several others from Minneapolis also built and struck the city. A few curious locals like Cowboy Carl and Cowboy Bob also joined the tribe.

Pedal Camp at Burning Man 1997. photo by flickriver

Basically it annoys us to no end when people say hippies founded and built this place. That’s wrong. Many of the early Suicide Clubbers and Cacophonists loathed hippies, or at least most of them couldn’t stand the swirly psychedelic Haight Street woo-woo stuff any more.

Burning Man, and Cacophony Society, are both the logical extensions of punk rock — and bike freak punks, cirkus clowns, crusty old cowboys, and dusty armed-forces veterans have always built and struck the place.

Trash fence was started in ’95 by a guy named Ember, or Larry Breed, a quiet guy who blossomed within Cacophony. (That’s what happens to all of us in Cacophony.) They were all going crazy over trash blowing downwind, and Ember suggested it to the ops department.

“They should make a bronze plaque for that guy for starting the trash fence,” Law says. “He did it for years after I left, too. It was all Ember’s idea, and I regard him as a hero.”

Mark Perez was transpo in ’94; now he’s the lead “fungineer” on the Life-Size Game of Mousetrap. Flash Hopkins, STVCO, Robert Burke, and again Chris Radcliffe also helped with the heavy machinery and transpo. Bill the Junkman’s Ace Auto Dismantlers in the Bayview in San Francisco served as the supply line for nearly all of Burning Man’s early transpo vehicles, as well as the raw-materials source for machine artists. Ace Auto’s initial contributions to Burning Man cannot be overstated.

DPW inside joke.
DPW inside joke.

John Law was operations manager in ’96 for all of cleanup. Later in ’96 he officially quit. His last function with Burning Man was at a CBGB’s gallery show. “’95 cleanup was really hard,” he says, “and ’96 was brutal.”

Truth. Even the stories are brutal. This writer has been DPW since first volunteering in ’98, and has suffered some epic brutality during cleanup — noodles with ketchup and maggots, people — though nothing compared to the ’96 aftermath. But hey, Project Mayhem has never been a walk in the park.

“The transition from Baker Beach to the desert was a big one,” Law says. “I rented the first box truck on my credit card. That was it – that was the beginning of my financial collapse,” he laughs.

“Six years later, I was ruined. But I don’t regret it at all. I couldn’t rent a car for seven years because my credit was destroyed. No regrets; I had a great time, and in the long run, it’s all been good for me. I chose to leave Burning Man but I didn’t have to. I was there seven years on the desert and two years on the beach and had a fuckin’ great time. And I’m glad I got out when I did. Hats off to the people who build the city. They usually aren’t recognized as much as they should be.”

Next post: Early Man – the Man and the art.

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About the author: Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes has been rousting about at Burning Man since 1998. She first met her dusty DPW / Cyclecide / Bike Club fam-dambly on the back of The Bucket. A Cacophony Society enthusiast, Summer loves explosions and cake.

12 Comments on “Early Man: Proto-DPW

  • Tiger says:

    After all this time, still no workers’ compensation for DPW. Hmm. Sounds like the Org is saving a LOT of money not paying for things. But it’s all in the spirit of gifting, even when you’re stuck with medical bills as a result of injuries out there. It’s all good.

    And anyone who arrives early knows that DPW doesn’t build the city.

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  • Phat Man Dee says:

    Thanks for writing this Summer. People don’t know how rough it was back then. When I rolled into the event in 96 with the Bindlestiffs and then again in 97 with Cirkus Redickuless, there was no infrastructure whatsoever. Hell, I don’t think we knew what an infrastructure was. I just remember that Flash and Bob and Joe were trying to work 18 hour daze with no food and I somehow became a cook for a group of people who would later become DPW. They were falling asleep dirty with beans drying in their beards and half eaten cold cans in their hands. We had no fOod to cook, you’re not joking about the maggots. I got screamed on for wanting to use the shower in the house in town. Loella and Bonnie Sweet (RIP) would drive food into us, but generally we were stuck with whatever rotten leftovers Empire store would bring us. Now I hear there are Costco deliveries…… I stuck around and donated months every year til about 2002, then I had to bail, I needed to do my own art, and being a singer in a desert is a little rough. I came back to be with Neverwas for a while (05-09), and it was incredible to see how well DPW is treated now. I tried to visit their camp but they didn’t seem to care who I was “1997 eh? Well, everyone gets kicked out sometime” was what I heard and they looked suspiciously at me like I was gonna steal their beer (I don’t drink) but hey, whatever. I’m glad you got your showers now, cuz we never did. Thanks for the historic shout out. I appreciate your hard work and the acknowledgemt that BM was built and cleaned by dirty punk rawk clowns (we called the fucking hippies “Drainbows”) who would probably steal your beer you rich yuppie mothersuckers…. Cuz the Gods know we didn’t have a dollar to go out and buy our own!

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  • Michael Rabbitt says:


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  • Summer says:

    *gasp* PHAT MAN DEE! How could we forget YOU? ::hangs head in shame::

    Ladies and gentlemen the first den mother of the DPW, our own diva Phat Man Dee. Go like her everything. http://www.phatmandee.com/

    we love you ManDee! <3

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  • Gardenia Garlik aka Nancy Denney Phelps says:

    I remember after the second burning man not only cleaning the playa but rounding up the stray dogs that had been lost on the Playa.
    One of my fondest memories were the camp fires afyer everyone else had left and we who were left finally got to relax.

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  • FireBunny says:


    My house needs cleaning. I can’t pay you, but you can have a campfire in the yard.

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  • Sueno says:

    @Gardenia Garlik

    I love the image of those campfires you described

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  • Robert says:

    Wow, a great idea from the word go! Just like America, subtle changes over time can add up to a completely different thing altogether…

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  • Tanner says:

    DPW and many other crews need to be replaced by paid professionals. It’s really THAT bad now.

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  • Dale N Scott says:

    Hey, John. I remember Baker Beach in 1990. I didn’t have a clue about what to expect except that Louis Brill (whose contribution to the Man rarely gets credit) called me on the Solstice in 1990 and asked, “Do you want to see something interesting tonight?. Well, I knew Louis well enough to know that I might not enjoy what I was about to see but, it would be interesting. I went with my girlfriend at the time. Sheryl Nuefeld (RIP), to Baker Beach. I was hooked and the next year I helped build the Man at Bob Gridley’s house in Pacifica. I made the trek to the Black Rock Desert (later to affectionately know as the ‘Playa’) with Louis riding shotgun. The rest is history. I was the first firefighter to attend what was then still a Cacophony Society Event and Burningman was just a feature of what was known as a ‘Zone Trip’. I have a tee shirt and photos to prove it. I worked on the Man for 14 year straight, eventually becoming the Senior Builder of the Man and the Founder of the BlackRock Volunteer Fire Dept. What happened after that is told in several versions and I leave it to the reader to sort that out.

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  • Col. Klink says:

    I met Robert “Tuttle” Rogers this year (2014) at BM.

    He was my neighbor, camping inside the AEZ. I find him to be an interesting and kind person. He hadn’t come to BM since 96. He told me about the early years, how he helped start DPW and getting the event profitable. About the regrettable expulsion of John Law, about the financial and logistic struggles in the early days on the playa, of the tragic accidents in 96. And right away he started looking at little details and pointed out what people (still) did wrong ;) It was good. I really like him.

    Funny detail: While I was given the playa name Colonel Klink by DPW, he had the same title back then! I already miss him and hope to see him again next year.

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  • Col. Klink says:

    Oh, and I also have to add some words about Ember: He’s also beeen camping in the AEZ for many years, and he has – to my knowledge – the longest-running art installation on the playa: The Chaotic, also known as the burning tetherball. During his involvement in the AEZ (which stands for Alternative Energy Zone) he has also developed the “Gray-B-Gon”, a contraption to evaporate gray water quite effectively. I had no idea he was already that much evolved so early on. He doesn’t talk, or even boast, much; but then, he doesn’t have to – he impresses by his wonderful actions. Indeed, a true hero. (Ha, there’s even a WP page on him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_M._Breed)

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