How an Escaped Octopus Captured a Young Girl’s Heart

There are many things that children love at Burning Man, but first and foremost is the engaging, interactive art, some of which is gigantic and playful. Animals of enormous scale populate the playa, including polar bears, flamingos, praying mantises, fish, coyotes, whales, boars, dragons, cats, dogs and jellyfish.

In 2018, I got wind of a sweet story about a little girl and a big octopus, Squirt by Abraham Raphael of Agoura Hills, California. Abraham describes Squirt! on the Burning Man website:

Rachel Petty communes with Squirt (Photo by Amberley Petty)

“The ‘Free Squirt’ campaign has launched for 2018 and is expected to bring out a host of emotions from Burners the world over. Marine researchers and Translumina Octopoda specialists will gather for a first hand look at “Squirt”, a recently captured specimen. Living underground it can take 30 years to reach maturation. Adults can weigh as much as 800 pounds. The most significant and endearing aspect of these giant playa octopuses is their ability to communicate and emote with playa visitors. Transluminant skin, suckers and nervous system radiate patterns of lights for a dazzling display. For now, the gentle beast is housed in a giant plexiglass jar located in the Black Rock desert. But Squirt has ideas of his own!”

Abraham’s local newspaper, the Thousand Oaks Acorn, also featured an article about Squirt.

One little Burner, Rachel Petty, became very attached to Squirt, developing a relationship with the talking octopus. She visited Squirt many times early in the week, and on Sunday begged to say goodbye to her aquatic friend while her parents were striking camp. Sadly, Squirt had been released.

But Rachel’s mother, Amberley Petty, says Abraham and his strike team took the time to calm and talk to a hysterically crying child, to get her address and then to have Squirt send her a personalized letter and some pendants.

“It’s these special moments and magic that keep us coming back every year and inspire us to create more art and to love more deeply,” Amberley says. “She is planning to frame her letter and these pictures in her room.”

Squirt sends his tentacled love (Photo by Amberley Petty)

Abraham writes: “As you can imagine, we were touched to have the young lady come to our art installation to say goodbye to Squirt. Over the course of the Burn, we had many people come by and talk to Squirt.”

“Often when I was in the booth voicing the Octopus, people would come and ask deep questions like ‘What is the meaning of life’ and other meaningful things. Often individuals would bring gifts for Squirt and tell it how much they loved her/him.”

“Nonetheless, at the end of the Burn when it was time to tear it all down, and in the heat and stress of the moment, you ask yourself ‘was it all worth it?’ That question was answered when the five-year-old child came to say goodbye. Seeing the connection that she had, and how real it was for her, was confirmation that our project was worthwhile.”

“Interestingly, the inspiration for the art project was based on an experience that I had when I was about her age. My parents had taken me on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. I was at a museum of some sort and when I turned the corner, I was suddenly confronted by a young white-colored Beluga whale inside of a glass enclosure. I was alone with it, and it was reacting to my presence. If I moved left, it moved left, and we were clearly playing with each other.”

“That memory has always stuck with me, and when I was conceptualizing Squirt, I was hoping that others would have that kind of intimate interaction. So in the end, having a young child deriving so much pleasure from the art piece brings back all those childhood memories. When she started crying that she couldn’t say goodbye to Squirt, I ran into the equipment truck to see if I could find the pendants that our camp leader, Liz Altmiller, had brought to give out as gifts.”

Rachel Petty (Photo by Amberley Petty)

“Unfortunately, with all the mess and commotion in the truck, I couldn’t find the small bag. I took down the address of the family and mailed them the pendants with a letter from Squirt. Part of the backstory for Squirt is that he lived in the playa and was being taken to Washington DC for experimentation regarding its telepathic abilities.”

“There really wasn’t a good way to end this story or to express what was in my mind to anyone. So the letter to the child became a way to end Squirt’s story in that he / she had escaped and had returned to the playa. I had an audience of one but she was worth it. Looking back on this project and the effort that it took to bring it to Burning Man, I have no regrets. It was all a blessing.”

“The person that I initially started discussing this project with was a woman that I met at Burning man in 2012 named Jieva Mulokas. Unfortunately she passed away just as we were starting to work on the project and she left behind a four-year-old who just turned five in September.”

“We dedicated the art to her and with permission from her mother we put a plaque on the observation booth with her name. When Rachel came to say goodbye to squirt, I definitely thought of Jieva and the five-year-old she left behind.”

The art at Burning Man has long tentacles; so many people are reached and moved by it in so many ways. We’ll never know how far these gifts travel and how many hearts they break open. Many thanks to Amberley and Abraham for sharing this lovely story.

About the author: Christine "LadyBee" Kristen


Christine Kristen (a.k.a LadyBee) is Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Manager and Photo Gallery editor. She was Burning Man's art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She is the co-author of "The Jewelry of Burning Man", with Karen Christians and George Post, and the curator of the exhibition "PlayaMade: Jewelry of Burning Man", which debuted at the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston in 2017. It opens at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle in January 2020. She has an MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago.

8 Comments on “How an Escaped Octopus Captured a Young Girl’s Heart

  • Chester says:

    Does she have a younger sister?

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  • spacetime says:

    This is a wonderful and deeply personal story from the burn! Thank you for sharing it.

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  • Moze says:

    Quite awesome telling of how the Art of Burning Man does indeed communicate with everyone. Love this, LadyBee, Rachel and Abraham.

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  • Lillian B heyward says:

    This is so beautiful and speaks to how burning man touches the child in each of us with wonder and love!

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  • Big Cheese says:

    I love this story! In so many ways it typifies the unique experience of Burning Man whether young or old. Many years ago my kids ( in their 30s at the time) decided we would host breakfast sandwichs at sunrise on our art car. I will never forget the father and young daughter ( maybe 5 to 7 years old)who wanted a breakfast sandwich but her father felt it was better to not accept food from strangers. Standing nearby and overhearing the conversation I assure her father that the chiefs were my kids and the breakfast sandwiches were made with care and perfectly safe. With his okay I requested one from my son and watching that little girl enjoying her sandwich as the sun was coming up will stay with me forever.
    And as for Ladybee, thank you for all that you have done (and continue to do) for our community!
    With much love,
    Your old friend formally of Garage Mahal,
    Big Cheese

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  • Big Cheese says:

    As a side note to my story the father and daughter had just gotten up and they were out for their morning stroll nd to watch the sunrise. Good on ya dad!

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  • Paint says:

    Great story LadyBee! Seems we go our whole life longer for a personal connection like that of Squirt, Rachel, and Abraham, but rarely finding it. But they happen ten times a day in BRC if you are open to them, thanks to the artists, performers, creators, personalities, strange wildlife, loving people, magic, serendipity, sleep deprivation, etc.

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