El Pulpo is a 25-foot-tall mechanical octopus made from found objects and scrap iron that spews fire from its mechanical tentacles while the eight eyes pop in and out of its head. The brainchild of Eureka, Calif.-based artist Duane Flatmo, with electrical panels and flame effects by Jerry Kunkel, El Pulpo is a sight to behold in person. We chatted with Duane to find out more.
Duane Flatmo (left) toasting Jerry Kunkel (right) on a job well done.
1. What inspired you to build El Pulpo Mecanico and how long did it take?
I’ve designed a similar version of this mechanical sculpture a few times over the years and realized that it could be a really cool sculpture if it were much larger. Having gone to Burning man for 6 years prior, I knew that I wanted to build it for that upcoming year: 2011! Every year we head down to our house in Mexico for two months and work on our own artistic projects — and this was mine. I would design a small, working model to use as a guide for the big one when we got back. I collected junk all over the roads near our house and built the model from that. When it was done, I disassembled it and brought it home to our lab. The Spanish name El Pulpo Mecanico means mechanical octopus.
2. What are some of the materials used in the build?
I have a great working relationship with Bonnie at our local scrapyard, Arcata Scrap and Salvage. I started by realizing that the scale was going to be determined by a 55-gallon rusty drum as the tentacle size. The scale was derived from that. Most of the parts are made from rusty junk metal with embellishments of silver steel and aluminum.
3. Was this a solitary build or did you have a team working with you?
I have been working for 32 years designing and building kinetic sculptures for the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race here in Humboldt County. My partner Jerry Kunkel was the co-builder and handled all the electrical panels and flame effects. Jerry is an amazing diverse tinkerer. He can build anything. Working together on this project was a definite high point in our building repertoire. Then our good friend Niel Wangsgard along with Lucas Thornton put in many hours to help with the overall project.
4. How did you get into building large-scale art?
I guess all the years doing the Kinetic Sculpture Race prepared me for this. I have done some large-scale projects in the mural business. Three-dimensional art is much different and more challenging.
5. Have you been building all your life? How did you get started and what other types of things do you make?
I’m a graphic artist and mural painter mostly. That pays the bills. But I’ve had a build and tinker mentality since I was a kid. We lived near Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm when I grew up, and I was always fascinated by these places. I would come home and want to build stuff.
In 2001 I was on a team called “Art Attack” and we were one of the first eight teams sent to London for the American series “Junkyard Wars.” We ended up taking 2nd place and spent a month in London filming three episodes. Ken Beidleman and June Moxon were on the team. That was a blast. Then two years later we were asked to race huge monster trucks in China at the Strange Vehicle Games. We spent 17 days in China and competed with 15 other teams from around the world. We each received $2,000 and had to build a vehicle to compete. They would send it to China and we had to leave it there after the games were over. That was another event that inspired me to build larger stuff.
6. Where have you displayed El Pulpo in the past?
We’ve been to Burning Man three times and this year will be our fourth. Next year we plan on constructing something new. That should be a fun task. We’ve been to The Electric Daisy Carnival in San Bernardino and Las Vegas, and got to shoot big fire at the “On the Move” project for the SF Exploratorium.
Photo by Trey Ratcliff
7. How many gallons of propane do you go through on a show night?
El Pulpo mecanico holds a total of 200 gallons of propane. That lasts about four hours if we don’t hit the fire buttons too much. That’s 200 gallons a night at Burning Man, which can really add up.
8. What is one of your favorite El Pulpo stories?
Well, having Susan Sarandon join us on El Pulpo at Burning Man last year was pretty cool. But watching the firemen from San Francisco line up to watch the fire show, with the head fire inspector hitting the fire buttons and giggling like a child. The connection with the sculpture becomes so pronounced when you have all the fire power at your finger tips. It’s actually 1/2 fire and 1/2 percussion. You can play this thing like an instrument.
Photo by Cat Laine
9. What makes you most excited about sharing El Pulpo with the Maker Faire community?
It will be nice to show people El Pulpo Mecanico up close. We love to see the gears turning in peoples minds as they look at the simplicity of the cams that run the beast. Many people think it’s all hydraulics until they look inside. Fun stuff!