INK IN THE DESERT-TATTOO RAVE AT BURNING MAN

INK IN THE DESERT—TWENTY YEARS OF BURNING MAN. 

 

PUBLISHED IN SKIN AND IN MAGAZINE   MAY 2006

 

 

COVER ARTICLE FOR SKIN AND INK. AMERICA'S LEADING TATTOO MAGAZINE

 

Burning man is the ultimate counter-culture festival. A surreal psychedelic Disneyland set in the vast and arid expanse of Nevada’s Black Rock desert, some 90 miles north of Reno. This year, over 35,000 people attended this mind-altering Labor Day bacchanal, which lasts for seven days and then vanishes, leaving no trace behind. It is the perfect place to throw off the shackles of normality and embrace a wildly creative and deeply anarchic reality. It is also the perfect place to see some amazing body art. With temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees, a tattoo is all the clothing required.  

 

ENTERING THE DREAM ZONE.

 

Taking Highway 80 and leaving Reno behind, the long drive to the festival through the majestic and barren scenery prepares me for the dreamlike environment of Burning Man. I arrive at dusk. Long lines of cars and RVs snake their way into the desert. As I drive onto the Playa, as this four hundred square mile, totally flat expanse of desert is called, I’m leaving behind the normal rules of society, shedding my skin and entering a far more colorful and playful world. Ahead of me, the lights of the gigantic temporary city glow on the horizon. A huge plume of fire from one of the many pyrotechnic installations shoots skywards. In front of me, Burning Man “virgins,” those attending for the first time, are asked by costumed attendants to get out of their cars and strike a bell. “Any stowaways hiding in there?” asks another as he takes my $250 ticket and begins searching the car. Finding no hidden bodies, he waves me on, through the entrance gate. 

 

No bell-striking ceremony for me, since I lost my virginity in ’96, when I first visited the festival. Back then, around eight thousand people braved the melting temperatures and pelting dust storms to enjoy a festival that, although smaller, was just as vibrant. 

 

As I drive around trying to find the location of my camp, I am blown away by just how huge Burning Man had become. Tents and RVs stretch endlessly in all directions. The map, given to me as I entered, shows the festival radiating out in concentric circles from the hub, where the iconic 40-foot wood and neon sculpture, Burning Man, resides. 

 

Each year the festival explores a central theme. This year it’s, appropriately, The Human Psyche. All the street names follow this theme with designations like Amnesia, Catharsis, Delirium and Ego. My camp was situated on Fetish. Perfect!

 

TATTOOED PEOPLE WELCOME

 

Although there are no working tattooists at Burning Man, a large percentage of participants are tattooed. “I come here every year,” says Jane, who has traveled from Boulder, Colorado. As she shows me her elegant, black tribal back piece she explains why she keeps returning. “It’s an incredible celebration of life. It’s one of those rare and magical opportunities to really let go of social conventions and explore a new reality. It’s the perfect antidote to all the right wing darkness that is currently strangling the life out of this country.”

 

Burning Man is certainly not a place members the Christian far right would enjoy. Thank God for that! Just thumbing through the vast timetable of events would give most died in the wool Republicans a heart attack. For those interested in freedom of expression, sexual tolerance and radical creativity, there is an endless variety of activities, ranging from the sublime to the to the ridiculous. Take your pick from the fairly innocuous “learning how to apply henna tattoos” to the decidedly kinky “a beginner’s course in rope bondage.” Frankly I can’t make up my mind whether to attend the workshop in Male Tantric Masturbation or go the Catholic School Girl Party. Decisions. Decisions. Or how about the Anal Probe Workshop? This tries to seduce the unsuspecting by promising “extreme anal pleasure and a hydrating enema.” I think I will pass on that one! Call me square but I settle for the Inner Child Play Time and an hour of revitalizing yoga.

 

BURNING MAN TATTOO

 

For many who come to Burning Man, acquiring a tattoo as a memento of their experience has become very popular. Richard Roberts, like many I spoke to, had the Burning Man symbol tattooed on his arm. “I love the sense of community that you find here,” he explains. “The usual social barriers that separate people in society are no longer present in this environment. Here, nobody cares what race you are, how much money you make or what you do for a living.”

 

There can’t be that many places in America quite like this, where money is almost completely useless. But Burning Man is a commercial free zone—no cash transactions are allowed. The only commerce permitted is the sale of coffee and ice, both of which can be obtained at Center Camp, a giant circus-style tent located on the semi-circular main drag of the festival called the Esplanade. Here you can sit in the blessed shade and watch performers and acrobats do their thing while sipping an iced cappuccino. One of those performers is Alix, who deftly rolls a crystal ball over all parts of her body. “This is the perfect place to perform,” she tells me, as she holds out the Medusa tattoo on her arm. “In fact, the whole of Burning Man is really one big performance." 

 

Alix was articulating one of the fundamental tenets of the festival, namely, it’s a “spectator-free zone,” where only participants are allowed. Everyone is expected to contribute to the community and the nature of that contribution is up to each individual. The idea of radical inclusion, which means you include yourself and you include others, is one of the main social principles governing activities at Burning Man. 

 

The combination of the extremes of the desert climate and the exclusion of any commercial activity produces a very unique atmosphere. “For years we have been turning down large scale vendors who want to operate here,” says John Law, one of the founders of the festival, back in 1989. “It’s very important that we continue to be a commerce-free event. If you have large scale vending going on, people are forced to live out of their pockets. It would just be like going to a ball game or a carnival. Here, we want people to depend on their own resources. If we let in vendors, we could all make a lot of money, but none of the organizers are concerned with profit. If it became commercial, the spirit of Burning Man would be lost.”

 

One consequence of the commercial ban has been the emergence a unique Burning Man activity called Gifting. Here, people will spontaneously give each other presents or other acts of kindness. For example, one heavily tattooed woman appeared at our camp in the morning and proceeded to cook us all a delicious breakfast. On another occasion, a man waited outside the portable toilets and gave me a steaming hot face towel.

 

 

BIRTH OF BURNING MAN.

 

When artist Larry Harvey and friend Jerry James built the first version of the Burning Man sculpture in 1986, it was only eight feet tall. Harvey, or so the story goes, had just broken up with his girlfriend. He decided to build the man and set fire to him on Baker Beach in San Francisco, as a ritual marking the end an important period in his life and the start of something new. A spontaneous event witnessed by 20 bemused people, Harvey repeated the ritual the following year and for another three until, in 1990, the man had grown to 40 feet and the audience to 100. This time, the police stepped in and stopped the burn.

 

Harvey then joined forces with John Law, a founding member of the Cacophony Society, a semi-underground group of artists and pranksters. The two decided to relocate the event to the Black Rock desert on Labor Day weekend. In 1991 the first desert Burn took place, attracting a mere 250. Since then, annual attendance virtually doubled, holding steady at around 35,000, for the last two years. From its humble origins, the festival has mushroomed into the fastest growing and most unique counter-culture event in America.

 

”We want nothing less than to change the world,” states Harvey, modestly. “I think we can do a better job than the hippies did.” Harvey’s main concern is what he sees as the degenerate influence of corporate capitalism. “We have no real culture in this country. All we have is merchandizing that preys on culture. We have identity problems and we’ve lost access to the feeling of awe that religions used to provide.”

 

CREATIVITY RULES

 

Renewing that sense of awe is what Burning Man does best. And creative expression is a major element. Body art plays a big role, but not only tattoos. Henna and body paint are also in great evidence. My personal favorite was The Blue Man, who wondered about the Playa naked, carrying a beautiful blue parasol and wearing insect-like goggles.

 

The festival attracts many artists who use the surreal desert environment as the perfect space in which to exhibit their art. The dedication of these artists is inspiring, since the effort required to haul in the largest sculptures and install them in the middle of the desert is phenomenal. Some of the installations, like the magnificent Temple of Dreams, require months of preparation. This Japanese-looking temple was used as a ritual depository for the bereaved. People who had lost loved ones were encouraged to write farewell notes and leave them at the temple. On the final night of the festival, this beautiful structure, like much of the art, is ritualistically burned to the ground. Many see the burning of the art as an act of purification. Unlike a museum or gallery, the art is created specifically for this one event. Its temporary existence becomes a gift by the artist to those people who made the effort to come and see it. 

 

Besides the large-scale art installations, there are numerous theme camps, where various social taboos and inhibitions can be transgressed and explored. The oral sex theme camp definitely caught my eye. Guerrilla street theatre is also a big part of Burning Man. We were treated to a group of roving performers who went tent-to-tent, trying to sell and install screen doors. There are also a huge variety of rather unusual parades. Two memorable examples were the Critical Tits 10th Annual Bike Ride and the Critical Dicks March, which advertised itself by stating, “Gather at 2 p.m. by the Man for a Free Willie march around the Esplanade. Cast off the cruel pants of oppression. You have nothing to loose but your shame.” Of course, there were also plenty of completely mad and spontaneous acts of surreal creativity. One of my personal favorites was a man who cycled around the desert towing a family of Teddy bears. But then, the guy on the motorized toilet came a very close second.

 

CREATURES OF THE NIGHT

 

In fact, there are so many things to do and see in the day that seeing them all is impossible. Additionally, the extraordinary heat makes trying to do anything absolutely exhausting. And so it’s when things cool down at night that Burning Man really comes alive. People who are already wearing the most fabulous costumes in the day decorate themselves further with glow sticks and flashing light-emitting diodes. This creates the most surreal effect, as people glide by on similarly decorated bicycles (the main form of transport, since cars are banned). The only vehicles to be seen are so-called “Mutant Vehicles.” These range from a motorized armchairs and sea urchins, to a peddle-powered banana and a beautiful Cheshire cat. If that isn’t enough, large motorized barges glide back and forth across the Playa, transporting groups of people to various parties. Burning Man also attracts some of the world’s leading DJs and the raves are legendary.

 

BURN BABY BURN

 

For many, the high point of the festival is the burning of the Man. This takes place the day before the festival ends. For me, this part of the event is quintessentially pagan and anarchic. People come to find a good viewing spot, hours before the burn. By late evening, the area surrounding the red and green neon statue becomes a rolling sea of strangely dressed and glowing revelers. Moments before the burn, a strange hush settles over the crowd. Then a huge explosion of fire works breaks the calm and all hell breaks loose. The crowd erupts with roars and screams, as huge flames rip through the Man’s body and plumes of black smoke spiral into the night sky. 

 

Within minutes, the effigy is consumed —reminding us of the temporary nature of life and to make the most of it while we can. 

 

 

 

www.burningman.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Articles

Tim Coleman has been working as a professional journalist for over thirty years. He has been published in a huge range of magazines and newspapers around the world including: The Guardian, The Independent, FHM Magazine, The Face, Focus, Sky, Skin and Ink, Wienner, Tatowier (Germany) Enigmas (Spain), UFO Magazine (UK and US) X-Factor, Encounters, Kindred Spirit and many more.
 
"As well as earning a living from being a freelance journalist, I have always found journalism to be the perfect medium to explore subjects that I'm passionate about. This not only allows me to enter deeply into the subject through the research, but it also provides me the honor of meeting key players in that field ."
Tim Coleman
 
Here is a small selection of my work.