Curious about what has made the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) tick for nearly three decades out in the dust? From the first appearance of art cars on the playa, join us for a chat with three DMV originators in this fourth post of the series about Mutant Vehicles in Black Rock City, and how they came to be.
While Rangers ensured in ’98 that only “art cars” drove on the open playa, 1999 was the first year of the formal DMV. The current Mutant Vehicle classification was specifically created by the DMV for use in Black Rock City, since the term “art car” was too broad a definition. Due to the limited number of vehicles the DMV can license each year, they needed a classification that better described the level of ‘mutation’ that was required for a license. A mutant vehicle is, in essence, a specific variety of art car that is either built from scratch or is more modified, customized, or changed — “mutated” — from its original form, if any, than most art cars. The DMV reviews close to 1,000 MV applications each year. In 2022, there were 624 approved mutant vehicles on playa.
Sparky Blackrock — DMV Council, Man Crew, Fly Ranch Guardian
FIRST BURN: 2003
“I got plugged into Burning Man because of my wife. She’d been attending since 1998, but we didn’t meet until 2002. We were going away on a camping trip in Northern California and a car drove past and she said, ‘Look, that car’s going to Burning Man.’ I asked, ‘How can you tell?’ It had bicycles piled on the roof and dirty tarps and water jugs and all the things we now know cars going to Burning Man look like. She just smiled and said, ‘You should go.’ This was on Saturday, which technically would’ve been opening night for Burning Man, and we were camping for the weekend. So on Monday I went into my local sports basement store and I bought a ticket at the ticket counter — back in 2003, you could still just go buy tickets locally like that.
“I drove to Black Rock City on Tuesday. It was a mind-blowing experience. I couldn’t believe the scenery, and I couldn’t believe the culture. Most significantly, I was blown away by the mobile art, the mutant vehicles. I just couldn’t stop staring at them. All I could think about was: I HAVE to have one of those vehicles. I can’t possibly come here again and not have a mutant vehicle! I’m an engineer by education and trade, and I’ve always been a builder, so I had always wanted the opportunity to create that kind of a thing.”
MUTANT VEHICLE: “HiLux”
“In 2006, my friends Stump, Bobby Blue, and I built ‘HiLux,’ a hybrid on a Toyota pickup truck chassis that we stripped completely down to the frame and raised the cab up 4′ in the air. From the driver’s seat, you had a 360-degree view above the crowds, which made driving much safer. On the front of the pickup truck, we created a little lounge with a sound system and seating area. In the center of the front booth it had a dance pole, and on the back we built a bar top with nine or 10 barstools around it so that we could serve cocktails. We could also host open mics, so we did some standup comedy, poetry, and other fun things — it was really just a rolling cocktail lounge, like a fun nightclub. It was relatively small-scale, but there were times we had 20-plus people riding with us. Mostly it was about stopping and providing entertainment. We also repainted ‘HiLux’ each year so it would reflect that year’s theme.”
TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME MV CREATORS
“Just go to Burning Man your first year and see how it moves you, because it moves everyone differently. Then start your communication with the DMV as early as possible, the moment you have the idea you wanna make something.”
“Start connecting with other mutant vehicle owners. Read every single word on the BurningMan.org website. And participate with the DMV. Back in 2004, I joined the DMV as a regular volunteer. One of the things I realized right off the bat is that there’s no secret sauce to getting your vehicle licensed at Burning Man. It’s just a matter of following the basic criteria of creating something visually stimulating that doesn’t look like a street vehicle.
“After working just one volunteer shift at the DMV, I was hooked. I was like, ‘Wow, this is my community. This is the kind of art I’m interested in.’ The people that run this little department of Burning Man are fun and they’re really engaged in the community and the art. More than anything, the DMV team works to curate the scene that gets set when you look out on the playa. It looks at: what does it take to make mobile art in Black Rock City sustainable and better? That’s what keeps me coming back.”
FIRST BURN: 1996
MUTANT VEHICLE: The “Motorized Living Room” (1997-present)
“The ‘Motorized Living Room’ (MLR) was built on a 1984 Volvo station wagon, my daughter’s old college car. It was a unibody car with no frame. We built a 12’x20′ plywood deck that folded up on each side to form a 3’x6’x20′ box on wheels so it could be trailered the 2,000 miles from Houston, Texas, to the playa. I had pictured it with avocado green shag carpet and swanky furniture, but after a lot of fruitless thrift store hunting, and as time ran out, we just commandeered a friend’s drab-yet-cushy couch and matching armchair from his apartment — a couple of lamps, some flashing lights, a sound system, coffee table, bar with blenders to mix frozen daiquiris, and we were ready to go! We never got a chance to test drive the ‘MLR’ before we got to the playa. I wasn’t so sure it was going to work…
“I’ve since made a lot of great friends and some really great memories in Black Rock City, over my 21 times making the trek to Burning Man. But I’ll always think back to that magic twilight evening in ’97… Rolling out of camp that first time, as a blonde in a short petticoated skirt, cowgirl boots, and beaming face strolled out of Center Camp and saw us on the ‘Motorized Living Room’ — she said, in a deliciously manipulative voice, ‘Ohhh, can we get on?!’ My response was, ‘Sure darlin’, I made it for YOU.’ She smiled and hollered back over her shoulder to a man in a hat, ‘Hey Larry. Come on!’ I recognized the Open Road model Stetson hat (that my father and his father and many other Texans wore in the ’50s and ’60s). Not two minutes into its first run out on playa, the ‘Motorized Living Room’ had been blessed by the presence of none other than Larry Harvey and Maid Marian. It was a great start, a special moment, and damn good feeling. After all, the cool car always gets the cool chicks, right?”
TIP FOR FIRST-TIME MV CREATORS
“The main thing I would say is, ‘Go back. It’s a trap! It’ll take over your life.’ I’ve been doing this now since the ’90s. [laughs]”
Chef Juke — DMV Council
FIRST BURN: 1994
“I first attended Burning Man in 1994. I arrived at four in the morning and the first thing I saw — other than the Man — was a car turned into a boat. It was an old El Dorado or something like that. Later that morning, I woke up, opened my tent, and saw that same car being chased by a famous mutant vehicle, ‘Ripper, the Friendly Shark.’ Right from the start, my first moments in Black Rock City, the surreal nature of where I was at was highlighted by seeing art cars.
“Fast forward to a few years later, a campmate of mine, Julie Cody, was the first head of the DMV when it was created. She kept asking friends and Burners to help, so in 2002 I started volunteering for the DMV and have been doing so ever since. This year will be my 21st year as a DMV volunteer, which makes my volunteerism old enough to drink in most states!”
“Since day one, I have been enamored with all of the incredible MV inspiration, artistry, and craftsmanship that I’ve seen, at all different levels — from the people who make these perfectly polished, amazing, expensive creations to folks who simply take a golf cart, add PVC pipe, some fabric or paint, not a lot of money but with tons of creativity, and create vehicles as compelling to me as the big ones.
“I often hear the criticism, or the perception, that you have to have a million dollars to make a mutant vehicle that will get invited to Burning Man. But what most people don’t realize is that’s just not true. Over half the vehicles that we invite are small — 10 people or less — made out of golf carts or something similar.”
TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME MV CREATORS
“My top pieces of advice would have to be…
- Read the MV criteria to make sure you fully understand the requirements, and ask questions!
- Know in advance that Burning Man takes a toll on whatever vehicle you’re bringing. Anybody who’s driven their vehicle out on the playa can look under their hood and discover years worth of rust that happened in just weeks in the Black Rock Desert, because of the alkaline dust.
- Understand that, just like any project, it’s going to come in late and over budget.
“People don’t realize the amount of time and consideration we [the DMV] put in. We spend about 2.5 months on the application review process alone, and we really do try to consider every single vehicle fairly, to invite as many as we can.”
Can’t get enough of these marvelously mobile artistic creations? Browse the extensive online gallery of mutant vehicles from Black Rock City over the years…
Dive deeper and learn more about mutant vehicles and Burning Man, please visit the DMV webpage.
Cover image of “Inky the Pacman Ghost” by Matt Theinert, 2014 (Photo by infernoasis)