What The Heck Is Burning Man? Fascinating Facts About The Infamous Festival

entertainment | Rick Lax & Friends | 9/11/18

Burning Man is the festival that happens annually. For the 70,000+ people that attend, it’s the best week of the year. For the rest of us, we’re left looking at photos on our timelines and wondering just what the heck Burning Man actually is. We know it’s a festival, we know it always has some strange art and fashion, but where did it come from and why are people so obsessed?

Well, the festival is more than thirty years old, is all about free-spirit, and has some weird rules and traditions. Read on to try and understand the popularity behind Burning Man.

It All Started In 1986

@burningmanhistory/Instagram
@burningmanhistory/Instagram

The first Burning Man happened on June 21, 1986. It was a small get-together of friends meant to occur at the time of the summer solstice. The founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James met together in San Francisco and burned an 8ft wooden man as an act of “radical self-expression.”

The two had been attending bonfires for years beforehand, but when others stopped organizing them, they decided to pick up the torch quite literally.

The Name Has A Dark Origin

@feauxcus/Instagram
@feauxcus/Instagram

For the first two years, Larry and Jerry didn’t have a real name for the event. Finally, in 1988, Larry decided they should formally name the event, and believed that it should center around the wood effigy that they burn.

They chose to brand it “Burning Man” because they didn’t want people to call it “wicker man.” Wicker Man can refer to the practice of burning people alive in wicker cages as sacrifices to the gods, so they wanted to avoid that at all costs.

You Have To Follow Ten Principles If You Want To Go

It took more than fifteen years for the founders of Burning Man to lay out some ground rules and really define what the festival means. Larry Harvey says that the ten principles are: radical inclusion, decommodification, gifting, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, immediacy, radical self-reliance, and radical self-expression.

A lot of these values tie into environmentalism and the counter-culture. The festival wants you to stop thinking “why” and start thinking “why not.”

Keep reading to find out about the unique tradition all first-timers have to do when they arrive at Burning Man.

Art Is A Major Part Of The Festival

@amelia_kosminsky/Instagram
@amelia_kosminsky/Instagram

A major part of the festival is the art exhibitions and performances that happen daily. The giant wooden statue that is burned at the end of the week is viewed to be the ultimate art piece. Each year, the theme dictates the art installations. Many art pieces are interactive and meant to me touched or climbed on.

The art from Burning Man has become such a big part of the culture that there is a wall of “Burner” art in the Smithsonian.

Free Love Is Organized At Burning Man

@giulia_dinu/Instagram
@giulia_dinu/Instagram

It’s common to see people hooking up at festivals, but Burning Man makes it a structured affair. There are swinger-themed camps and nude camps on the grounds if you’re into free love.

For those people who wanted a good time but don’t have the time, Burning Man also holds a “sport” arousal challenge. The goal is for a man to get it up as fast as he can without using hands and everyone watches. We bet they’re glad the photographers have to sign that contract.

The Numbers Keep On Growing

@brantsadventures/Instagram
@brantsadventures/Instagram

The festival is pretty relaxed with its rules, but there is one you have to follow if it’s your first time at Burning Man. When you arrive at the gates a volunteer will ask you to raise your hand if you’re a Burning Man “virgin.”

Then first-timers are required to lie down on the ground and roll around in the white sand and yell “I’m a virgin no more!” Good thing you don’t have to do that for your real virginity.

You’ll never guess how many other Burning Man festivals happen around the world.

Mad Max Would Be Jealous Of The Cars

@mandelbratwurst/Instagram
@mandelbratwurst/Instagram

Many Burning Man attendees will arrive in style with their “Mutant Vehicles.” These are cars that have been altered into art pieces like a praying mantis truck.

People have gotten a little too creative in the past though, and now all Mutant Vehicles have to be accepted in advance by the DMV. One of the main criteria is that the DMV be able to recognize the base vehicle underneath the art piece.

The Camp Hook Up Service Is Not What It Sounds Like

@gmill00/Instagram
@gmill00/Instagram

If you can’t find what you need from someone else as a gift, Burning Man provides a “Camp Hook Up Service” that isn’t for matchmaking. The Service is more than 2,000 volunteers who work at the festival each year and carry around a case of supplies.

Each volunteer always has chapstick, survival guides, glow toys, band-aids, condoms, aloe vera, bike repair kits, Gatorade, and aspirin on them. You can sleep peacefully knowing that a glow stick is never far away.

There’s More Than One Burning Man

@travelnbeean/Instagram
@travelnbeean/Instagram

The original Burning Man happens once a year in Black Rock, Nevada, but not everyone can travel there. For those outside of America, there are Burning Man-like festivals like Kiwiburn in New Zealand, Dragon Burn in China, and Burning Seed in Australia.

They’re all legit and organized through the Burning Man Regional Network. Whether or not they’re legit, they operate with the same intentions and free-spirit as the Nevada festival does.

Coming up, find out how much all of this really costs.

Things Get Communal At The Bathing Station

@raveready/Instagram
@raveready/Instagram

Since the festival is held in the middle of the desert, people get sandy and dirty pretty quickly. Burning Man has bathing stations set up, but first, you have to wash twelve other people. Before you can get bathed, you have to rinse, scrub, and soap a dozen others.

Finally, it’s your turn to get scrubbed down. If that doesn’t make you learn how to be comfortable in your own body, we don’t know what will.

Gifting Is Required, But Money Is Not

@lucylegan/Instagram
@lucylegan/Instagram

One of the main principles, gifting, means that you should leave your wallet at home. The only things you have to pay for at Burning Man is ice and coffee. Festival-goers provide everything else. You bring your own food, drinks, trinkets, and supplies.

People pack for the festival with the intention that they will give away these things to others with no expectation for something in return. That’s why it’s a gifting system, not a trade or barter system.

The Price Can Get Steep

@jenlefur/Instagram
@jenlefur/Instagram

A ticket for entry into the festival is around $400 and a vehicle pass for the week is $50, but that doesn’t include transportation, fees, costumes, food, gifts, or supplies. In 2017, surveys showed that the average total cost of attending Burning Man was $2,348.

That’s the average price though. We’re sure when celebrities are there, they can spend a little more. Many Burners say that you can happily get by at about $50 a day.

Speaking of celebrities, keep reading to see what big names have attended Burning Man.

What Happens At Burning Man Legally Stays At Burning Man

@eyeconic_la/Instagram
@eyeconic_la/Instagram

When it comes to photographs, whatever you do at Burning Man might be covered by a lengthy legal document ensuring your privacy.

The festival likes to make sure everyone feels free to do as they please, so all photographers have to sign a contract saying their work can be ceased by the festival. That means they won’t post photos of illegal or incriminating activities so that people’s everyday lives aren’t affected.

It’s Not As Drug Friendly As It Seems

@jenannsmith/Instagram
@jenannsmith/Instagram

With a nickname like “Burners” and a festival embracing the 1960s counterculture, most people assume that everyone attending Burning Man are drug-loving hippies. Well, it’s not an incorrect assumption, but Burning Man does technically have a no-drugs policy on paper.

The festival probably won’t confiscate your drugs, but Burning Man is held on federal land, and federal law enforcers will be on the grounds. Whether or not they enforce the law is up to them.

Rich And Famous People Attending Is The Ultimate Irony

@KevinTang/Instagram
@KevinTang/Instagram

Burning Man’s values are all about grassroots organization, sharing, and good will, yet in recent years more celebrities and businessmen have started attending the festival. Google’s Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and even P. Diddy have all attended Burning Man.

It’s pretty ironic to see a bunch of business moguls shedding their identity and possessions for a week to slum it with the rest of us. Maybe they’ll gift some of their billions in the real world too.

Expect To Find Some Unique Transportation

@shane_spring/Instagram
@shane_spring/Instagram

The number one way of getting around the vast festival grounds is by bike. Black Rock City is more than 1,500 square miles, and events take place in every corner. People will usually dress up their bikes in a unique way like adding fur, glow sticks, and paint.

As for how they get to the festival, most people carpool. The carpools can get competitive though, as you have to advertise yourself as a fun person to ride with for hours.

1990 Marked The Move To Nevada

Scott Nelson/AFP/Getty Images
Scott Nelson/AFP/Getty Images

Larry and Jerry originally held the festival in San Francisco, but the National Park rangers shut it down because they didn’t have permits for the space. A similar event had already been going on in the dry lake bed in Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

Larry and Jerry partnered up with the creators of the Black Rock event, and the traditional Burning Man was formed. One year later, they got a legal permit for the festival, and the rest is history.

It Embraces Diversity, But Isn’t All That Diverse

@fang.fang799/Instagram
@fang.fang799/Instagram

One of the ten rules at Burning Man is radical inclusion, but not everyone wants to be included. A survey conducted at Burning Man in 2014 showed that 87% of attendees identified as white, while only 6% identifies as Hispanic, 6% as Asian, and only 1% as Black.

People have tried to study why white people are so interested in the festival in proportion to other races, but the jury is still out.

Watch Out For Your MOOP

@burningmanhistory/Instagram
@burningmanhistory/Instagram

MOOP, or “Matter Out Of Place” is the Burning Man term for litter. Since one of the ten principles is “leaving no trace” Burners feel it is important to clean up after themselves and live as sustainably as possible during the week-long festival. In the months before the event, volunteers will clear the area of all trash and debris to create a “clean slate” for the event.

After the festival, you’re responsible to take your trash with you.

They’ve Have Some Environmental Criticisms

Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Burning Man might sound super eco-friendly, but people have criticized the practice of burning the wooden man as being harmful to the environment. In 2007, one art exhibit burned and consumed 900 gallons of jet-fuel oil which wasn’t exactly good for the environment.

Also, even though there is a take your trash policy, it’s estimated that the week-long festival produces “hundreds of thousands” of plastic water bottles that end up in landfills instead of being properly recycled.