Powerful Juju




You sit with Mel in the bar at Bruno’s, and she’s sipping a beer as her boys Atticus and Colby work on some coloring books in the empty restaurant next door.

It would seem the most natural place in the world for her to be, but it won’t last much longer, because the boys have to go back to school and it’s time to get back to the Bay Area and begin the default life again.

[Personal note: It should be federally mandated that schools resume on the Wednesday after Labor Day. Not before. Labor Day is when summer vacation ends. That’s the natural order of things. That’s when it is ok to go back to school. Not before. Not ever before. … End personal note.]

So it’s another Burning Man interruptus for Mel and Tony Coyote and the boys, even though the family has been here since June, getting things ready for the event. But it hasn’t been all work. “We go out and have adventures,” Mel says. They’ve been swimming at Squaw Reservoir, they’ve been exploring the playa, they’ve gone for dips in the pop-up swimming hole out past Soldier Meadow Road, the one that formed during this year’s heavy rains.

But now it’s time to leave all this behind.

“We’ve gone back after Early Man,” Mel says, “but that’s cutting it too close.” Would she like to live in Gerlach year-round? It would seem to make a lot of sense, and there wouldn’t be this truncated experience late every summer. Besides, a lot of her and Tony’s lives seem entwined with Burning Man and the Fly Ranch Project, and all the things that might come with it.

“I don’t think it’s time yet,” she says simply, her eyes a little distant. And as she says this, you get the feeling that even if the time hasn’t come yet, it might be coming soon.

Mel and her boys

Mel is putting down roots down here, and she is very well known around town. Part of it is her being here as much as she is, but the bigger part is how much people seem to gravitate toward her calmness and good humor. She just seems to be able to take the long view of most things, and the daily trivia just seems to roll away.

She took the long view when she helped make the signs for Black Rock City again this year. As you probably know, the city streets are laid out like a clock, with the Man at 12 and the city radiating out from the center, from 2 o’clock around to 10. The cross streets start with the Esplanade and are named with consecutive letters of the alphabet, A to L, in accordance with the theme for the year. This year they are Awe, Breath, Ceremony, Dance, Eulogy, Fire, Genuflect, Hallowed, Inspirit, Juju, Kundalini and Lustrate.

And each of the intersections get a hand-painted sign that helps participants figure out where they are in Black Rock City. Mel’s been a part of the sign shop almost as long as she’s been coming out here. She stayed around after the season in 2001 to help take down the city spires, and the next year she joined the sign shop, and she’s been there ever since.

The signs used to be made in San Francisco and then shipped out to the playa, where they were installed on the city streets. There were the street signs, and the Burma Shave signs that lined Gate Road, and the old billboards that used to remind participants that no firearms are allowed here. And no pets, either.

“Now everyone seems to know that,” Mel says, so those signs have disappeared. But there’s one sign that remains, one that’s been put up since the beginning. It says, “Welcome to the vacant heart of the Wild West.” Look for it on your way in.

The sign shop started hand-painting the signs around 2005, and crew members are responsible for coming up with the designs. Mel chose to tackle JuJu this year. Either she chose it, or everyone thought that it was the right one for her to do, because she’s good at the juju kind of stuff.

“I don’t know where juju comes from,” she says, “except that it’s kind of a hippy phrase to say, ‘Oh, that’s bad juju, or good juju.’”

So she started doing some research, and she established links between the word and the practice of voodoo in West Africa. “And when we looked it up, [juju] could be good luck OR bad luck, but you could wear an amulet or certain symbols” that would attract or repel good luck or bad luck.

To stay with the West African roots, she used Andrinka symbols on her signs, with the symbol for unity on one side, and the symbol for diversity on the other. “They’re really traditional,” Mel says. “You see them on furniture, in tattoos,” and they are used in rituals and ceremonies.

But that wasn’t all she did. That’s really only the beginning.

She also decided to attach an amulet, a small bag, to each of the signs. And those bags would contain natural items from the desert environment. And she involved the whole community in making them.

The amulet

“I reached out to the community and asked DPW and our local Gerlach friends to help with the project. … We got all kinds of stuff given to us, people who’ve had collections – rock collections, and feather collections, and we got sage from Lacey’s sage plant, and someone had collected a bunch of tufa from the playa, and they gave that to me to put in.

“The coolest thing [the donor] thought about the tufa was that it glowed under a blacklight,” Mel says, “but I thought that it was pretty cool that it was petrified coral from Lake Lahontan,” the ancient lake that sat in the middle of the Black Rock Desert.

“We got pretty rocks, and quartz, and all kinds of natural items, from people in the DPW and the Gerlach community,” Mel says. She also included items that she and the boys collected on their outings over the course of the summer.

And then she got together with the kids in Gerlach and made them a part of the effort, too. Mel had them help her put all the collected items in the little bags that would eventually go on the signs.

But Mel wasn’t quite finished. She took the bags, which had been dyed with turmeric and coffee, and brought them with her to the Golden Spike ceremony. Then she took them to the labyrinth in Will Roger’s back yard. She placed them behind the crystal in the middle of the maze, and let the light from the setting sun fall on all the bags. And then she brought them all out to the sign shop on the work ranch, and she put the bags near the tree that the crews like to sit under, and let the bags absorb that energy, as well.

“And now that they’re going to everybody, they’ve already been involved in four or five ceremonies, and hopefully they will be a good luck charm for people.”

Reverse view

It’s always a drag every year when people steal the handmade signs before the event is finished, so we’ll make our annual appeal to please please please leave them alone until everything is over. It’s soooo easy to get lost out here, especially at night, and those signs can be lifesavers for wandering souls.

And you also might consider this: Mel says people have gotten better about respecting the signs in recent years, but, “I wonder if people will get bad luck if they steal those signs too early.”


There is powerful juju in those signs, and it would be best not to risk what might happen if you take them too early.

Personal note No. 2: As fate would have it, we didn’t venture out beyond the fence to the Black Rock Desert last night to watch the Perseid meteor shower along with the folks from the Friends of Black Rock / High Rock.

Part of the reason was simply timing: The sunset was beautiful, and a group of Ghetto neighbors were simply enjoying sitting around watching the sun go down at the end of another long day. It didn’t seem like a good idea to leave.

And clouds were rolling in from the east, and there were a few lightning flashes in the distance. You never really know when a heavy weather cell is going to slam you.

Another part of the reason we didn’t go came in Gerlach earlier in the day. There was a car being worked on at the gas station, after it had gotten stuck at the Three Mile entrance to the playa. Pete said that the car was a mess; because it didn’t have any hooks for pulling, a tow truck basically had to attach a rope to the car’s frame, and although it was freed from the muck, there was lots of damage to the engine from all the yanking.

We’re still a little antsy about wet spots in the playa. There was standing water here not so long ago, and we didn’t want to come across a wet patch out in the middle of nowhere, with no radio to call for help.

So we stayed home and looked up into the night sky.

The meteor shower was modest compared to previous years, but we’ll give it another try tonight.

Here are some more pics:

The end of the day at the sign shop
Jenerator is pretty much always happy to see you


People have gotten the hint


Signs from years past


The shade tree


We didn’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.


Angel works on her stenciling.


The stencils become art objects in their own right


Tamsin handled the “i.” Note the progression from Doric column to Gaudi influence.


Team sign from 2014





About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

7 Comments on “Powerful Juju

  • Jennifer Raiser says:

    Yay Mel, and yay Sign Shop! They always take it to the next level. One note: unless this is a change, there WILL be Burma Shave signs again this year on Gate Road, with quotations related to the Radical Ritual about to be entered. They are always on the right, which means your passengers can read…. them…. aloud… to… you….

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    • John Curley says:

      Oh yes, sorry if I mis-worded that; there was only one year that there weren’t any Burma Shave signs. The Gate folks wanted people to use all the lanes, not just the one next to the signs. But the signs came back by popular demand

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  • LadyBee says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love the reference to Adinkra- I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, Southern Africa way back when, and after I finished my service I spent a year hitchhiking across West Africa, solo. In Ghana I collected some kente cloth, which is printed with Adinkra symbols. So this is a deep connection for me. THANK YOU MEL!! Just wonderful.

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  • roissy says:

    I always thought if they offered street signs for sale in the market place, possibly they would be less likely to be stolen???

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  • Dan Baker says:

    Like the signs. My favorite bumper sticker said “Honk If You’re Jesus.” Thought that was funny. Great work.

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  • amy says:

    this is so cirly curly circle syle beyond belief strata style love the nspriti

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