Burning Man is a festival that takes place once a year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Participants in the festival erect a temporary city called Black Rock City that is home to an eclectic bunch of as many as 70,000 artists, free spirits and inspired souls.
During the week of the festival, the desert is filled with art, music and creations beyond your wildest imagination. The playa can be home to inspiration, exhilaration and connections with some pretty unique people. If you’ve never been, these photos will give you a small idea of just how unique and exciting Burning Man is.
Take a Look Around
What’s most obvious about Burning Man is that it’s home to incredible art. Visitors of Black Rock City spend all year theorizing and creating the art that will live on the playa for a week at the end of the summer and huge pieces like this one are just par for the course. World-renowned artists and amateurs alike build the things other people can only dream of and oftentimes burn their art at the end of the festival.
The week before the festival starts is when it all gets constructed. The week, known as “build week,” is when artists first venture out into the vast desert to create the framework for Burning Man before it is all torn down and carried out two weeks later. During this week, the vast desert is home to creatives and builders who anticipate the upcoming madness.
Burning Man got its start in the ‘80s when Larry Harvey, an artist and activist who lived in San Francisco, first burned an effigy of a man on Baker Beach. The event became an annual tradition and what was once a small crowd of friends grew into an event that welcomed hundreds. By the ‘90s, thousands people were attending the festival and it was moved to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to accommodate the crowds.
“Disneyland in Reverse”
In 1996, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey explained the festival to the San Francisco Chronical and said, “The Burning Man is Disneyland in reverse … Woodstock turned inside out. It’s anything you want it to be.” This event is clearly as sought after as any amusement park or concert, as tickets sell out months in advance and only a lucky few can say they’ve visited Black Rock City.
He’s the Man
The Burning Man effigy that the festival is named for also grew as the festival did. At the first Burning Man meeting, the wooden man was 15 feet tall. In 1990, the man had grown to 40 feet, five times taller than the original. Nowadays, the man can reach heights of 75 feet and is typically constructed by a team of hundreds who outfit him with neon lights, lasers and the pyrotechnics needed to set him ablaze at the end of the festival.
Safety Concerns Moved the Festival
Burning Man originally moved to the desert due to fire safety concerns from the Golden Gate police force. The original event was banned in the area so Larry Harvey and his friends sought to move the yearly event elsewhere. A team including Michael Mikel, Kevin Evans and John Law helped relocate the event in 1990.
They Found the Perfect Spot
Mikel, Evans and Law had met in San Fransisco and took some of their learning from the counterculture Cacophony Society as inspiration for Burning Man. Mickel shared that the group, similar to the individuals who gather at Burning Man, was a “randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” After having visited Black Rock Desert in the past, the men knew it would be the perfect spot to move the fledgling festival.
Keeping Black Rock City Safe
With the bigger location for the event came a need for increased safety measures. Mikel spearheaded the forming of. The Black Rock Rangers who serve as an independent police force during the festival to keep Black Rock City’s residents safe. Mikel also appointed himself as the group’s top officer.
The Heyday of the Burn
In the ‘90s, Burning Man grew exponentially and the new location proved to be an excellent decision. During the event’s second year in the Black Rock desert in 1991, 250 people showed up to watch the man burn. This was followed by 1,000 people joining the event in 1993 and by the time the decade closed out in 1999, 23,000 people were in attendance. With the increased number of attendees also came an increase in ticket price. What was once a donations only event in the early ‘90s cost over $100 to attend in 1999.
Welcome to the Playa
The setting for all of the commotion is the playa, or the dusty and dry lake bed where the festival occurs each year. The fine alkaline dust that makes up the playa is well known to be hazardous to your health and will finely coat any objects you bring with you out into the desert. Besides being difficult to get out of your hair and out from under your nails, this dust will all but require you to wear a face mask anytime you are out in the elements during the festival.
Call Me By My Playa Name
The playa also reminds the burner community that they are in a place very different than the places they typically call home, so there are plenty of things to do differently before the whole thing goes up in flames. For one, burners call themselves by their “playa names” while at the festival, which is any name they choose to be called during the festival. And while guests are there, they typically dress much differently than they would at their day jobs, if they are wearing anything at all.
No Money Changes Hands
One of the most baffling rules of Burning Man is to let no money exchange hands during the festival. That’s right, there’s no merch tables or pop-up boutiques in the desert. The only things for sale at Burning Man are coffee and ice, which means that everything else offered on the playa is willingly shared for no cost. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be expected to share what you have with your fellow burners, too.
Show Your Respects At the Temple
Burning Man is a place where people frequently mourn their loved ones and process intense emotions. The temple, which is one of the many structures that is erected each and every year, is a place where people can grieve openly. Burners are invited to write letters to people they have lost and leave it at the temple, which is burned along with the man at the end of every festival.
Celebrate Life in All of Its Forms
The temple is also a place where people commonly spread the ashes of loved ones who they have lost. But there are other locations on the playa where people can celebrate other aspects of life. People have even gotten married at Burning Man, as long as they have picked up their marriage license in town beforehand.
Burning Man is Nothing Like Other Festivals
Although some people might think of Burning Man as a music festival, it’s nothing like Coachella or SXSW. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t music playing for the entire week. Acts take the stage at all times of day and even big names like Diplo have played Burning Man sets entirely for free.
A Long and Winding Bike Path
Everything at Burning Man is just a bike ride away. You’ll need a vehicle pass to use your car at Burning Man, and most of the large vehicles on the playa are art cars, which are some seriously tricked out vehicles unlike anything you’ve ever seen on the road. But most people opt to get around via bike, which are usually tricked out in LED lights, too.
Everything is Free, But It’ll Cost You
Aside from world class music, some of the free things available at Burning man are wine tasting, zip-lining, massages and helicopter rides. Ice cream, pancakes and plenty of drinks can be found on the playa, too. And with tens of thousands of people attending the festival every year, there’s no way you’ll be able to see everything available on the playa in one week.
Celebrities Love Burning Man
Burning Man may have had humble beginnings, but now the who’s who of society are frequently seen at the event. From Silicon Valley billionaires to world-renowned celebrities, you never know who you might spot on the playa. But another unwritten rule of the festival is to keep photography to a minimum and always ask before snapping a photo of someone. Just because Paris Hilton is on the playa doesn’t mean that everyone else in attendance wants their photo taken.
Some Famous Guests
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are among some of the people who have attended Burning Man in years past. Zuckerberg reportedly skipped long entrance lines by dropping in via helicopter to spend the day serving grilled cheese sandwiches. And Elon Musk has praised the festival, telling The New York Times, “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.
A Cool Treat
Most people would think that the hot desert festival where guests build and destroy almost everything they drive in with would be the last place you’d find ice cream. But even the perfect summer treat can be found on the playa! Icecycle Creamery has mastered the art of making ice cream by hand in the desert and they bring massive tanks of liquid nitrogen to accomplish the task.
Camping in Style
You might imagine that most residents of Black Rock City call a tent home for the week they spend there, but that is increasingly not the case. Luxury RVs and private yurts and becoming more and more common on the playa, and some people who really go all out bring along private chefs, air conditioning and private showers, because only communal showers can be found at the festival.
Pay Your Dues
Each camp at the festival charges dues for people looking to stay with them, and there is one camp that costs a pretty penny to consider. Billionaire’s Row is the camp for the wealthiest of the wealthy. The cost to stay here is $50,000 for the week, and that doesn’t include any of your personal amenities. But this camp is considered by some Burning Man attendees a threat to the principles that the festival was founded on.
Exclusive and Isolated Camps
The only way that the sharing economy of Burning Man can thrive is if everyone on the playa takes part in giving back to those that have given something to them. That’s why long-time burners consider the attitude of many luxury campers who dine in walled off VIP areas to be odd. Founder Larry Harvey even acknowledged at one point that exclusive and isolated camps were not respectful to the principles of Burning Man.
Help is On the Way
If you’re a Burning Man newbie, don’t worry too much about finding your way on the playa alone. There is a team of 2,000 volunteers at the festival each year whose sole goal is to hook up burners with anything they might need. The Camp Hook Up Service members, as they call themselves, have a steady supply of survival gear on hand including glow sticks, band-aids, Advil and Gatorade.
Burns Around the World
The original Burning Man event can only be found in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, but it has inspired affiliate events across the world, New Zealand, Australia and China all have annual man burning celebrations. There are even multiple other events in the United States that mirror Burning Man’s principles and ideals.
The Ten Principles
There are 10 principles of Burning Man, which it is expected that everyone in attendance follow. Because the festival can be grueling, difficult, and even at times painful, it is helpful to keep these principles in mind when you venture out to the desert to remind you that everyone else around you is in the same boat, and you’re all part of one community.
The first principle of Burning Man is radical inclusion. The official site for the festival describes this principle by saying, “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”
The next principle of Burning Man is gifting. The official site for the festival explains this by saying, “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” This principle is most clearly seen by the lack of use of money on the playa.
Another principle of Burning Man is decommodification. Residents of Black Rock City are encouraged to forgo all logos and advertisements on all of their personal items. There are also no commercial sponsorships to be seen on the playa. No corporations are represented on the playa and everything is done solely by individuals.
Because Burning Man can be a difficult endeavor, it is important to rely on yourself before others because everyone is going through the exact same difficulties that you are. Losing your bike and getting lost in a dust storm is just par for the course at the festival, and in serious times of need, someone will always be around to lend you a hand.
Burning Man is known as a place where no act of self-expression is wrong, so if you’re planning to join in the event next year, pick a playa name and bring the outfits that excite you most. Of course, everything you bring to the playa will be covered in dust by the time you get home, so feel free to express yourself in countless other ways instead.
Besides being self-reliant, it is important to realize your place in the Burning Man community while you are on the playa. Everyone works together to make the festival possible and as the official site for the event states, “Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
Another principle of Burning Man is civic responsibility. As the official site for the event states, “We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.”
Leaving No Trace
Burning Man happens in the desert every year and it’s important that everything that is brought into the desert is taken back out at the end of the event. This means that everyone who attends the festival is expected to clean up after themselves at every point in the festival and leave no “moop,” or matter out of place.
Clean Up Crews Are Necessary
Even though leaving no trace is one of the ten principles of Burning Man, many of the residents of Black Rock City leave some trash behind. This is especially noticeable in towns just outside of the event, where festival goers frequently dump off their extra trash while heading back home. Luckily, groups have been set up to deal with this trash yearly, so local residents don’t have to handle the problem themselves.
Participation is obviously very important at Burning Man. Without the participation of everyone on the playa, the event couldn’t run each year. From manning booths to passing out food, everyone is welcomed to do a job at Burning Man, which is a considerable gift to give your neighbors on the playa.
Immediacy is considered perhaps the most important principle of Burning Man culture. The week-long experience is so unique that visitors are urged not to let even a moment pass them by. The official site for Burning Man explains, “We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”
Diversity Is An Issue
Burning Man is an incredibly inclusive space, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still work to do to make everyone feel included. According to a 2014 survey, it was determined that 87% of burners at the festival are white, just 6% of attendees are Latino and 6% are Asian. This lack of diversity is notable at the event, but event organizers maintain that there is no exclusion on the playa.
Showers Aren’t So Private
Unless you bring your own private shower, the only place for you to get clean before the burn is at the Foam Against the Machine tent. This place is a communal shower that is set up similar to a car wash and there’s nothing here to hide you from everyone else looking to get clean.
Playa Art is a Big Deal
Burning Man occurs for just one week every year and devotees sometimes spend the other 51 weeks of the year planning their art for the next burn. Some Burning Man art installations have made their way to the Smithsonian museum in the exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, which was shown in 2019.
Photography Has Some Limits
With all of the sights to see at Burning Man, it’s a wonder how anyone could refrain from taking photos of all of the outfits, art and nature on display. But the commonly respected rule on photography at the festival is simply, “ask first.” If anyone is appearing in your photography, it is expected that you will ask before you take their photo.
Not only does Burning Man take place in the dry desert each year, but it also occurs during the hottest month of the year. The end of August is as hot as it gets on the west coast, but that doesn’t mean that you should forgo a jacket when you’re packing. The temperatures at night can get pretty cold, and surprising rainstorms aren’t uncommon either. So stay hydrated during the hot days and try to save your wildest dance moves for after the sun goes down.
It is recommended that everyone on the playa wear closed toe shoes and this is for a very good reason. The dust of the playa has a high alkaline content and getting the dust on your skin can cause a burning feeling. This leads to a condition that burners call “playa foot,” which is when the reaction occurs on your feet, which typically happens to burners who choose to wear sandals. This burning can be relieved with apple cider vinegar, but the reaction can be much worse on any open wounds.
Black Rock Observatory
Just about anything you can think of can be done on the playa. One camp even hauls out gear each year that includes a high-powered telescope and observatory dome for star gazing and planet viewing. The group of science fans share the best times for viewing the planets and tips for catching a glimpse of the stars.
The Event Is Spiritual For Some
46% of Burning Man attendees surveyed described themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and it is clear that the event is much more than just a party for some people. Besides the temple, attendees partake in flow arts, meditation and yoga to center themselves in between dust storms and dance parties.
Burning Man is Home to Sober Communities
Many people may associate Burning Man with illicit substances, but there are sober communities at the festival that prove that you don’t need all of that stuff to have a good time. The Anonymous Village camp and the Run Free camp are both completely sober camps for sober burners who want to get the most out of their experience.
Laws Are Enforced at Burning Man
Burning Man may seem like a lawless place, but the same laws that are in effect in the outside world are still in effect in Black Rock City. But there is enforcement of some rules inside the festival and although 70,000 people attended the festival in 2018, it may be surprising to hear that there were only 43 arrests made for possession of illicit substances during the festival.
This sculpture premiered at Burning Man in 2010 by an Italian artist who was raised in California. Marco Cochrane illuminated the 40-foot tall sculpture with 1,000 LED lights to show off its incredible size even at night. The art piece weighed 7,000 pounds when it was fully constructed.
Truth is Beauty
Marco Cochrane also designed this art piece, which was commissioned specifically for Burning Man. The sculpture was named the Most Gorgeous Sculpture at the festival in 2011, as decided by a team of judges. The 40-foot tall steel dancer was part of the artist’s Bliss Project.
Art is meant to be interacted with at Burning Man, and if a sculpture can be climbed, it will be. This giant unicorn was practically made to take photos with. There’s a staircase hidden in the tail that allows people to climb up the disco unicorn for a ride.