Not Okay: Vandalism in Black Rock City (Pt. 1: The Iron Monkeys)

Editor’s note: In the wake of the 2016 event, we need to call attention to some unfortunate incidents of vandalism. The goal is to bring to light the fact that this stuff happens in Black Rock City, to open a discussion about why it happens, and — hopefully — to end it.

There will be at least one more post in this series.

This post has been contributed by members of the Burning Man community who volunteered to share their views on this topic. The opinions expressed here are not those of the Burning Man Project. We provide a platform for the Burning Man community to engage in dialogue. If you would like to propose a post of your own, you can submit a story here: Submit a Story form.

By Karla Shults of the Iron Monkeys

I am part of the Iron Monkeys, a Seattle-based metalworking collective which has brought art to the playa for 10 years. This year, we built a blacksmith shop, Piazza di Ferro, and spent the week teaching blacksmithing to the citizens of Black Rock City.

Most nights, we are at our projects in the evenings from just after sunset until one or two o’clock. However, Burn night we have other work obligations and do not usually make it to run the fire elements of our pieces until at least 1:00 am. This year was like that. After returning to camp and eating a quick dinner, I rode out to Piazza Di Ferro ahead of a couple other Monkeys who would be joining me after they finished eating to begin the initial start-up procedures (MOOP sweep, check propane valves, start pulling out safety gear and so on). I arrived shortly after 2:00 am to find our art project trashed, for lack of more appropriate professional terms.

Some unknown persons decided to use our space to release some destructive energy. The doors to the shop had been pulled open; anvils were pulled from their stands, stands for anvils and forming blocks were knocked over and urinated on, one of the wooden panels forming the walls of the shop space was nearly pulled off its hinges (only one screw was left on each hinge holding it, and the hinges were bent beyond use). Some of the inner walls, outer walls, every corner in the shop and our propane control panel were all urinated on.

Not only was the internal shop space vandalized,  but aspects from the perimeter were abused as well: a bench was un-staked and laying feet away from its original placement, multiple hanging lanterns were knocked over, one fire torch was uprooted from the ground and laying on its side while another was leaning over half removed. I will point out that both the fire elements and the benches are Playa Stapled into the ground and are not particularly easy to un-stake without a pry bar. It appeared the persons who vandalized our space had to rock the items back and forth to remove the Staples in order to move them. To me this displayed a fair amount of intent and effort into the destruction of our space.

When I arrived at the project to the open doors, I thought to myself, “Oh no. Please let everything be okay.” I walked through the doors and became extremely upset upon seeing the tools on the ground. I turned our shop lights on to evaluate the situation, see what might be damaged, and to decide if we could light up for the night. I stood cursing for a few moments. Every direction I looked in and out of the shop, something was displaced, broken or urinated on. I was sad, angry and hurt. I picked up the anvil, placed it on the table in the center of the shop, cried and contemplated my options.

I thought about going back to camp to inform the rest of the Monkeys what had happened. I thought about not lighting up for the night. I thought about sitting down and waiting for others to show up to help decide what we should do. I thought about going back and getting someone with a camera. I thought about just cleaning everything up, lighting the project and not letting the vandalism ruin the night. That final thought was what I decided to do.

Many factors contributed to my decision. For one, I didn’t want to “give in” to the sadness and anger I felt. I didn’t want to let a small number of destructive people stop what we were there to do, to stop us from sharing our art and the space we built. Maybe I should have waited, maybe I should have found someone with a camera to document the vandalism. I still feel, in the spirit of things, I made the right choice.

A couple times while I was cleaning up the space, participants visited who offered kind words and hugs. (Thank you!) My fellow Monkeys shortly followed. After filling them in on the state of things, they very upset as well. Together we finished cleaning, setting up and began to light for the night. It ended up being fun night despite the bitter beginning.

I have never directly experienced vandalism or destruction of art on playa to the degree I did this year. I have heard stories of such behavior and witnessed art being damaged due to carelessness or inebriation, but never this. The Iron Monkeys pour blood, sweat, tears and love into what we create to offer unique experiences and interactions with the participants of Black Rock City. To have this level of disregard, disrespect and maliciousness offered in return, admittedly by a small few, breaks my heart.

It still upsets me. I have difficulty talking about this experience without tearing up. However, it’s important to talk about. Let’s start a conversation. Let’s stop this kind of behavior. I am grateful for the many that show us love, support, respect, kindness, excitement and friendship. Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

(Top photo by Kay Morrison)