“Project: EMPIRE” — the Culmination of 20 Years of Experience Building Masterful Mutant Vehicles

We sat down with long-time Burners and creative geniuses, Kyrsten Mate and Jon Sarriugarte, in our third post of this series about mutant vehicles, as they shared their two-decade journey bringing their many mutant vehicles to playa. Dig in to discover what we can expect from this epic creative team for Black Rock City 2023!

The “Golden Mean” and the “Serpent Twins” mutant vehicles by Jon Sarriugarte and Kyrsten Mate, 2012 (Photo by Dan Adams)


If you’ve participated in Black Rock City in the last two decades, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across (at least) one of Kyrsten and Jon’s mutant vehicle creations out on playa. They’ve ranged from small to large. Contrary to others who have made multiple mutant vehicles, Kyrsten and Jon are not in the habit of selling their creations, making their projects a truly decommodified labor of love and Radical Self-expression.

  • “SS Alpha Fox” (2004-2005)

Kyrsten: In 2004, after I met Jon, I bought a simple little meter maid cart, and we decided to create a vehicle to bring to BRC. That was the first year you had to submit an application for consideration to get a mutant vehicle license ahead of time. You had to mail stuff in, and often received approval mere weeks before the event. So in only 14 days, we built the “SS Alpha Fox!” We stayed up nights to finish and bring it. That was a lot of fun. 

Jon: Then in 2005, since we had a child, we made a trailer for the “SS Alpha Fox” — a lunar lander that went behind the car. It ended up being used as a baby corral for all the kids in our camp. The kids could safely ride on top, and there was a flame thrower out the front that they could shoot from where they were sitting. 

The “SS Alpha Fox” with lunar lander trailer for Jon and Kyrsten’s child, 2005 (Photo courtesy of the artists)
  • “Golden Mean” (2008)

The snail-tastic “Golden Mean” takes its name from the golden ratio. Other inspirations for the project include the Giant Pink Sea Snail from Doctor Dolittle, giant mechanical elephant puppets by Royal de Luxe, and Jules Verne’s imaginative creations. 

  • “Electrobite” (2009)

Kyrsten: I wanted something that I could ride on separately, especially at night. So Jon and I hand-tooled the exoskeleton of Electrobite: Sarriugarteis (Olenoides) trilobite,” then mounted it on the drive mechanism of an old electric wheelchair. At night, undermounted blue lights and luminescent eyes give it an otherworldly glow.

  • “Zeppelini” (2010)

Jon: In high school, my friend told me a story she had heard about a top-secret rigid airship program in the 1930s. I did some research and found this incredible airship, after which we modeled the “Zeppelini,” covering it in a gold finish. Similar to the “Electrobite,” it was also mounted on a wheelchair base. 

  • “Serpent Twins” (2011)

Jon: In 2011, we built the “Serpent Twins,” which were two 50-foot-long dragons [made] out of 55-gallon barrels, with heads and tails. One shot fire, was black and kind of male-centric; the other one was white and had a diamond in its mouth that young men could reach in and grab and be swallowed and become men.

Kyrsten: While the snail was definitely an art piece, the “Serpent Twins” were the first thing we did that was more art than vehicle. We were inspired by La Machine and how they made mechanical puppets. So this was our version of puppetry. We moved them around and drove them in patterns. I had this whole mythology behind each of them, and we planned everything with white and black. We also had to invent a bunch of new technology for the LEDs. At the time, it was still a lot of EL wire out there on playa.

Jon: We were one of the first projects that had LED flowing lights. Now you see all the glowing, swirly stuff everywhere, but when we brought it out that first year, people’s minds were blown. You could touch the head and make a rainbow ripple through the body because it had an accelerometer in it.

Since making its first appearance on playa in 2015, “EMPIRE” will be returning to the dust this year (2023) as “Project EMPIRE” — a disassembled, reworked and upgraded version of the massive mutant vehicle that Jon and Kyrsten have been eager to bring back to Black Rock City for the past few years.

“Project: EMPIRE,” 2023 (Photo courtesy of the artists)

Kyrsten: “EMPIRE” looks like a giant tree hopper with a NASA rocket from the 1960s; it’s exactly one-third real-life scale. Our friend designed the CAD file for all the pieces, then we cut out all the strips and built it ourselves. Our camp in BRC is Empire of Dirt, so we called the rocketship “EMPIRE.” We had no idea the parallels it has with the actual NASA spaceship Project Empire.

Jon: We have a conspiracy theory site that goes into the backstory of how we ended up at Burning Man with this car, for anyone who wants to go down that wormhole… (ha)


Jon Sarriugarte got the playa name “No” when he filled out a DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) shift form which simply asked if he had a playa name. The rest is history. Together, Jon (aka “No”) and Kyrsten (aka “Jet Girl”) have been creating mutant vehicles for Burning Man since 2004.

Kyrsten: I went to Burning Man first in 2001. At that time there were only “art cars” and they looked very different. The next time I went was 2003, and the people I was there with brought their mutant vehicle with a flame thrower (“poofer”) on the front. I kept asking them questions: “How do you make the poofer go? How do you do this and that?” One of the guys went into all the details, and helped me learn a lot.

In 2005, we showed up at the DMV and it was complete chaos. There were people who had been there for four hours. Nobody knew what was going on. Once we finally got our license, we went in and asked, “Do you guys need some help?” Their response was, “Yes! Can you start now?” We had literally pulled in a couple hours prior, and ended up doing two DMV shifts.

At the time, there was no line and everybody was getting grumpy. I feel like I kinda invented the Fluffer position they have now at the DMV, because I would walk around saying, “Okay, who’s here for this? You can go over there. How are you? Can I get you water?” Then I would ask them about their car. Everybody was excited to talk about their projects, so it relaxed them. Since then, I’ve handled calls and I now do online work for the DMV.

Kyrsten and Jon with their daughter aside mutant vehicle “Serpent Twins,” 2013 (Photo courtesy of Make:)

Jon: My first time going to Burning Man was 1995. I moved to California from Idaho in 1987, and quickly joined up with Survival Research Laboratories, which John Law and Michael Mikel were part of. I knew of Larry Harvey, but that was more because of the Cacophony Society stuff I was involved with. Larry and gang were definitely the hippie crowd, not punks. So we assumed we were going to a rainbow festival, to be honest. I was pleasantly surprised when I drove up and there was a machine gun mounted to the top of a pickup truck, and I was told there was a drive-by shooting range nearby. That was back when there was the car hunt and the hippie hunt.

Burning Man is about art, but it’s also about pushing people’s boundaries and making people uncomfortable. That’s why it was held out there, in the Black Rock Desert, in the first place.


Kyrsten: Jon’s a master fabricator and master welder, and has learned a lot of the LED stuff. We have friends who are really great with LEDs and electronics; we’ve definitely had to recruit that knowledge to make it work because LED and programming was not our strong suit, but…

Jon: It is now!

Kyrsten: With the “Serpent Twins,” Keith did our electronics. He actually invented the board that controlled everything. His team made their own boards, they sat and etched them all in an assembly line to make everything work.

Jon: That technology for the Serpent charmer board is still, to this day, being used in devices, military applications, power plant systems, and one race car I know of. 


The amount of skill and work that goes into regular art is immense, but to make it move and do the things that mutant vehicles do out in the dust is incredible. Many of the experiences I’ve had with MVs have been some of the most magical ones for me in BRC. That’s why I feel it’s important to share stories like this, because what our community makes out there on wheels is pretty fucking amazing. 

Kyrsten: Seriously. People may not realize HOW much engineering goes into making one of these mutant vehicles — it’s a lot. It’s hard even just getting it there and making it work in the dust. And then, after building for however many months, having enough people who are willing and not too exhausted to actually drive it around for a week. Simply getting it out every day, and being out in the heat in the night and navigating bikes…

Jon: Navigating Hell Station to get fuel and through side streets and the bumps and ruts … oh, and the insurance. Don’t forget insurance! Making it safe; making sure people don’t fall or jump off.

The “Serpent Twins,” “Golden Mean” and “Electrobite” by Jon Sarriugarte and Kyrsten Mate, 2012 (Photo by Andy Pischalnikoff)


Do you have any specific resources or things that you use to find Burners in your area, volunteer networks to get plugged into? For someone who’s trying to start a new mutant vehicle but has never done it before, how do they go about finding that electrical guru for their project?

Jon: Looking at the online stuff, I see the mistakes that people make trying to find help. People trying to find camps without understanding: 1) You don’t need to have a camp, you can just go and do it. You don’t need to belong to anything; 2) If you want to solve your problems and get your questions answered, the best way is to find a veteran [Burner] who’s been out there at least once before, so that you can plug into that project in some way. You have to be open to what’s going to come at you — because I might need a welder, but I get somebody who’s really good at woodworking who can solve the same problem. Then just let those people do what they do best. 

Kyrsten: For the most part, nowadays, it’s much harder to get stuff built for Burning Man because all our old friends and all the people who have experience are now being paid to do stuff — that’s how they make their living. So they’re not going to volunteer, they don’t have the time. It’s also much harder to do this without a grant or a backer. We’re one of the few people we know who has neither of those.

Jon: I own my building and there’s a community space with about 50-100 different people in my building. There’s always a Burning Man project, or 10, going on here. So it’s easy to step across the hall and borrow and lend people back and forth. We’re still very much a Burner community here, but that’s really disappeared elsewhere.

Back in the day, Burning Man was a much smaller thing based in San Francisco, and there was a lot of cheap, inexpensive real estate and a lot of people that knew how to do stuff. That’s not the case anymore. So it is much harder to find space. It’s harder to find people who actually know what they’re doing or who can take time off and do this. 

Kyrsten: The biggest thing is to plug into the community and simply show up. Any way you can, just get people excited about your idea and meet other people who can help — that’s the key.

Jon: Folks who are able to stick around, those are the ones who are helpful and make the project worth doing. From my end, it’s having to be open. I mean, I’m not at an age — after as many cars as I’ve done — where I’m very open anymore, because I have a clear vision of what I want. But when I have new people starting a new project, I recommend: get your group together, throw out ideas, and be receptive to shifting that project towards the commonality of what everybody wants to do and their skill level and money and space and all that.

Kyrsten: It’s a LOT of work. What we’re making is art that moves, instead of just a vehicle.

Jon: If you miss out on creating an actual mutant vehicle, there’s always things called bicycles — and you can do almost as much with a bike. There’s plenty of gray area and freedom to build moving art that doesn’t need to go through the mutant vehicle process. 

Kyrsten: As someone who works with the DMV, my one final little piece of advice for a brand new mutant vehicle builder is to not concentrate on making a vehicle that meets the criteria, but instead concentrate on making a piece of art or an idea, then figure out how it gets to mutant vehicle status. It doesn’t have to be complicated if it’s a genuine, clever, or charming idea. Think about: What am I trying to accomplish by building this? When people ask me how I come up with ideas for our cars, I’m always like, “Oh my god, we don’t even have time to build all our ideas that we’ve dreamed up!”

I would love for more people to spend time asking themselves: What would I dream of creating if it could be anything? Then whatever you dream up, just bring it — your most mutated dreams!

Jon: Push the boundaries of what a vehicle is. It’s not there for your convenience or so that you can just get around easier. It’s there for you to show your art in a way that is temporal. It’s about participation. You can’t be an asshole with a megaphone unless you bring something else.

To learn more about mutant vehicles and Burning Man,
please visit the DMV webpage.

Cover image of the “Serpent Twins,” “Golden Mean” and “Electrobite” by Jon Sarriugarte and Kyrsten  Mate, 2012 (Photo by Andy Pischalnikoff)

About the author: Brinkley


Kristy Neufeld, aka Brinkley, is the Managing Editor for Burning Man Project. She oversees the Communications team’s various public-facing channels, and can be found at Media Mecca on playa. With degrees in German, Editing & Publishing, and experience as a chalkboard artist, Brinkley is a self-proclaimed word nerd with a creative soul. Her first year experiencing the joy of 'dust in all the wrong places' was 2019. Brinkley currently spends her free-time on the road between California and Colorado, CrossFitting or adventuring in the great outdoors with her dogs—Winnie & Joon—while living in a van called 'Ronda.'

3 Comments on ““Project: EMPIRE” — the Culmination of 20 Years of Experience Building Masterful Mutant Vehicles

  • Mat Zerbino says:

    What an amazing interview. Really hope to stumble upon Jon “No” and Kyrsten “Jet Girl” this year at Playa. <3

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  • Robert says:

    What a great article to start with. Completely enjoyed reading about the mutant vehicles and maybe one day see it all in person. Thanks for sharing

    Robert aka Spiritwolf

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  • Juno says:

    Jon and Krysten have given so many magical memories to BRC Citizens over the years. Amazing work, incredible people. Thanks for this conversation!

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