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Local Legend of the Week: Burning Man Founder & Billboard Liberator – John Law

Updated: Aug 16, 2019 09:23
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We here at like to show love to the people who make cities like San Francisco and New York special. That’s why we’re doing a series called Local Legend of the Week. This is our chance to hip you to some of the strange, brilliant, and unique folks who populate these towns and give them the character that people from around the world have come to love.

John Law showed up late to our interview.  He was covered in black soot and carrying a helmet, as though he had just been shot out of a cannon.  Now if you’ve heard some of the stories about John that might not surprise you.  He said, “Sorry I’m late but my motorcycle caught on fire and blew up on the way over — don’t worry the fire department came and put it out and I’m going to get it all cleaned up”.  He then produced a cell-phone video of his motorcycle completely engulfed in flames and in the background you can hear John yelling to pedestrians, “Hey please keep your distance it’s going to blow up any minute.”  He then explained to me that he was never worried about the explosion being too large because his gas tank was full and therefore had very little air in it, you see, it’s the oxygen in the tank that allows for a large vehicular explosion, not the amount of fuel per say, and that was just the first fun fact I learned from talking with John Law.

Shortly afterward we took the elevator to the 20-something floor, and began climbing a thin staircase until I realized we were in a clock tower, yes, John Law’s office is above the face of a giant clock that overlooks downtown Oakland.  You could see the inner mechanics that made the massive hands move, and remove a sheet of metal in order to stick your head out of the clock face and peer over the city.   At any moment I expected Batman to knock on the window and let himself in.  Meanwhile, John is perfectly comfortable in the belfries and crawl spaces of the world, he has famously (or infamously) been climbing the Golden Gate bridge for over 30 years beginning with the Suicide Club in the late 70’s and then with the Cacophony Society in the 80’s and 90’s.  He and the Billboard liberation front repeatedly made headlines by scaling billboards and artistically ‘improving’ corporate messages:

The work of Jack Napier aka John Law and the Billboard Liberation Front 1977

 Ode to a tired message! 1980 

BLF drops LSD in 1995

Apple still makes, like, the BEST ads

Using humor on ‘the man’ 2008

John Law arrived in San Francisco in 1977, as a 17 year old juvinile delingquent and runaway.  He skipped out on his probation and hitch hiked his way to Haight St.“All the hippies hanging in the Haight were toothless drug addicts by then. They all told me the PARTY WAS OVER! ‘go home kid’…..I’ve had a hard time taking hippies seriously since then!”  He quickly joined Gary Warne and the Suicide Club which was a group of misfits and adventurers who sought to face their fears and have fun in the process. They would do things like scale the Golden Gate Bridge and hike through the Oakland sewer system.

Then came the San Francisco Cacophony Society which inspired chapters to spring up in other cities (the writer of Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk was a member of the Portland Cacophony for example) John told me about a time when the SF troop wore all black and infiltrated a desalinization plant (Mortons salt or the like) and proceeded to change into completely white outfits in order to sled down giant hills of salt undetected (many such stories may be read in, Tales Of SF Cacophony). John’s tenets after 34 years of planning pranks, infiltrating ‘forbidden’ areas, and improving billboards are quite simple:  (1) Don’t hurt me. (2) Don’t hurt yourself. (3) Don’t hurt the general public. (4) Don’t get caught! (5) Have fun!

Shot by John Law from the top of the Golden Gate during the Bridge’s 50th anniversay.  I kept pestering John for storys about climbing the new Bay Bridge expanse, but he wouldn’t speak about anything he did (or didn’t do) in the last 7 years…or within the law’s statute of limitations.


Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society from Madnomad Films on Vimeo.

Buring Man:

I was eager to get John’s opinions on Burning Man, as he was there at the beginning and was an integral part of its planning and organizing.  John is no fan of the current BM spokesman Larry Harvey, and has misgivings about how the festival is being promoted and regulated today.  They had a legal dispute over the ownership of BM back in 2007.  John wanted the BM trademark to be released to the public domain so that “anyone can then be Burning Man”.  With millions of dollars in profits at stake the other two ‘owners’ involved had different ideas. (Read John Laws words about it here).

The BM expirement used to be about deregulation, as John says, “find out what you are ‘supposed to do’ and then do something else.”  But Burning Man may have found that philosophy’s limits.  In 1994 Larry Harvey had the idea to give the festival a ‘theme’, in order to unify expectations, and Stuart Mangrum of the Cacophony society pocked fun at him, “you mean like Enchantment Under the Sea? Like it’s a prom?”  Then in 1996 there were fatal accidents on the playa that caused many to question the sustainability of the festival.  Things began to change, the festival evolved for better or worse to accommodate a growing fan base.

 The early days of the ‘drive-by shooting range’ or ‘car hunt’ were just a few documented examples of that early wild and autonomous spirit (no one got seriously hurt in these activities).  John says they ‘killed themselves’ making sure they cleaned it up

Now the festival’s sheer size (70k) demands a lot of regulation, luckily the event employs its own Rangers who help to keep people safe and the city running.  But part of your hefty ticket price goes to paying cops (many undercover) in order to enforce local, state, & federal law.  Its original founders never saw that coming, Burning Man was supposed to be about building a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) that would elude formal structures of control.  Now it’s on the national pop scene’s radar and draws headlines every time a celebrity brags about attending (our own Joe Kukura wrote a hilarious article on the subject).

Meanwhile John Law has been doing and building cool shit completely independent of ‘Burning Man’ since 1996.  He says: “If you’re going to make art or organize cool events, do it here, in your home town, you don’t need Burning Man to be creative. Go to the playa and get high and laid and see old friends, but create here, at home, all year round. BM is kind of a DisneyLand for tripping attorneys and coders. You don’t need a corporate event that other people own as an excuse to be creative.”  I had a similar sentiment in 2012 after I saw the amount of trash and waste left on the playa the morning after a massive concert, younger party goers were treating the festival like any other, the ‘leave no trace’ , and ‘radical self expression’ aspects were watered down to throwing on fairy wings and aiming for a trashcan when convenient.  The festival has changed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still great, or that it doesn’t attract incredible people and ideas, let’s just try to remind the next generation of the spirit that made it special in the first place, and remember that you don’t need an event, or an excuse, to be creative…even though BM is a pretty damn good one!


John Law Q&A:
Year arrived in SF: 1977
Favorite job I’ve done in San Francisco: Restoring the 25ft tall rotating star on top of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel
Favorite place to live In San Francisco: North Beach and The Bayview equally and for very different reasons.
Best Year in San Francisco History: 1977 the year we made the Suicide Club

Best Politician In San Francisco History: I hate them all
Favorite event in SF? Golden Gate Bridge 50th Anniversary 1987
Favorite eats: Rocco’s on Folsom: Polenta and eggs over easy with sausage, grilled tomatoes and sautéed spinach
Favorite bar: Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe
Favorite drink: Single malt scotch
Best hangover cure: 3 gin bloody mary’s at Club Deluxe on Haight
Favorite free thing to do: Explore, I have a map of the bay area and I have my 9 year old son throw a dart at the map, and where it lands we go there.
Favorite Museum: The Museum of the Inconsequential by David Warren and Gary Warne.
How has the city changed? “San Francisco is ‘denser’ now than it used to be”
What did you think about Paul Addis burning down the Man prematurely in ’07: That was probably by far the most radical act of self expression to take place at Burning Man since the early 90’s.
Is the Cacophony Societ responsible for SantaCon? “We started SantaCon in SF in 1994. It’s gone through many permutations since then. When we first did it, it was sort of a proto-flashmob. It was edgy back then, we would march thru Macy’s and Saks chanting “charge it! CHARGE IT!!!” Over the years it devolved into a sort of knucklehead pub crawl – I was a little embarrassed about it for awhile. Recently, I’ve realized that SantaCon is mostly really young folks, pretty much out of control – it’s still a non commercial event. AND, the people most annoyed by SantaCon are townie hipsters. Now I say: “Go Santa GO!!!!”

John Law in his SantaCon garbs

 The Sir Francis Drake Rotating Star that John repaired

In 2005 the BLF and artist Ron English combined to create the first anamatronic Ronald Mcdonald force feeding an obese child

The Police arrested Ronald

and threw him in the paddywagon


But the party went on

BONUS: It’s John Laws Supply List for Burning Man back in the day:

– a totally trustworthy person who has your back no matter what. (for me – my girlfriend during my BM years, Vanessa Kuemmerle)
– 1 fully insured rented Lincoln Continental Town Car (driven properly this vehicle could go most places a 4x driven by a good driver could go and it could go a whole bunch of places a 4x driven by most people would get stuck…)
– several cases of really cheap, weak beer on a lot of ice (for hydration)
– water (for shaving)
– camp stove
– food
– chain and shackles
– lots of good rope
– come-along
– propane
– good topographical maps
– good field glasses
– shovel
– tent
– tarps
– ammunition for whatever firearms you bring (duh)
– road flares
– gps device (helpful but not mandatory)
– night vision gogs (optional)

Billboard Pics:
BM pics:
Sir francis drake pic:
santacon pic:
BM research:
Other pics by John Law

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