From an Oakland warehouse of even weirder things: Schaaf’s fire-snorting mayoral snail
on February 24, 2015
THE SNAIL. The Jules Verne-ish, Dr. Doolittle-ish, 12’6 foot high, 18 foot long, 3000 pound, glow-in-the-dark, fire-blowing, motorized, iron snail, was built atop the skeleton of a 1966 VW Bug. But it came from a dream — literally.
“Kyrsten woke up one morning and said she had a dream that we were driving around in this giant snail,” says blacksmith and self-proclaimed Oilpunk Jon Sarriugarte of his sound designer wife, Kyrsten Mate, who has worked on Oscar-winning films. “She described it to me, and we sat and drew pictures on a napkin.”
They tossed the idea around for two years from the time they first drew the snail in 2006. Then one day, Sarriugarte says, when “the economy was going to hell and I just didn’t have a lot to do, I woke up one morning and said, ‘We should build that car.’ ”
They tracked down a stripped-down Volkswagen on Craigslist and began constructing the giant snail they named The Golden Mean, from a mathematical rule they used in its creation. The snail makes its home, when not attending events, in Sarriugarte’s West Oakland warehouse—along with a half dozen other spectacularly imaginative inventions.
There’s the moon-landing-inspired SS Alpha Fox, which blows fireballs from its roof “blaster.” (“Really cheesy 1970s looking spaceship vehicle,” says Mate. ) There’s the Alpha Fox’s landing craft, The Zolander, which is a tow behind trailer created for Mate and Sarriugarte’s daughter Zolie.
There’s the Electrobite, a joystick-controlled, ride-on pre-historic Trilobite fossil that glows blue from underneath; the wheelchair-based Golden Zeppelini “flying machine;” and the pair of glowing 50 foot-long fire-breathing vehicles called Serpent Twins — Jormungand (Midgard) and Julunggul (Rainbow).
Sarriugarte’s fascination with the sci-fi mechanical creatures of his 1960’s childhood, fused with Kyrsten’s childhood love of Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, inspire their creations. Additionally, Sarriugarte says, “Both Kyrsten and I are totally enamored with the whole apocalyptic… you know, society has been wiped out, and going back to the city, visiting and finding a grocery store full of stuff.”
Sarriugarte’s art group, The Empire of Dirt, created all these mobile creatures for Burning Man. The group is made up of two-dozen volunteers– engineers, artisans, film people, teachers from the industrial arts workshop The Crucible, and workers from Tesla Motors and Tesla Coil. They get together most Saturdays in Sarriugarte’s shop, and work on projects and restoration.
Sarriugarte’s passion for blacksmithing developed during a 1970s shop class in Boise, Idaho, where he was born and raised. He moved to California and started to restore furniture, made art pieces from found objects, and created his metal furniture company, Form & Reform, in 1987.
“Very early on I was doing lighting and indoor coffee tables, chairs and hubcap clocks, all metal, a little bit of wood here and there, and glass,” Sarriugarte says. He’s come a long way since then – he’s designed lighting for upscale restaurants like Oakland’s Camino, and is now working on his fourth line of lighting for Restoration Hardware.
His devotion to the artistry of wacky art cars in his “spare time” did not actually begin with the creation of their first car (ahem, space ship)- the Alpha Fox. It stemmed from a trip he took to Amsterdam with Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), a Bay Area art group to which Sarriugarte belongs, to a “sort of a Burning Man kind of festival of artists,” he says, called Robo Dock.
Sarriugarte and Mate were impressed by how in Europe so many art-piece designers fund their art by building a bar they incorporate into their very art piece to fund it. “One was a slow-moving roulette wheel that you would sit on, and you had to wait until you clicked up to the right place to order, and then you had to wait until you came along to pick up your drink,” says Mate. “There was a motorcycle bar that was like an upside down Christmas tree, and you could spike your beer, and it would mix the leftovers to fuel the bike,” says Sarriugarte. “We thought that was hilarious.”
So upon their return from Amsterdam, Sarriugarte and Mate founded the Boiler Bar Theater. The Empire of Dirt built an entire bar and theatre and took their show on the road, with belly dancers, people walking on glass, tight-ropers, fire, music, and madness, “funded four dollars at a time through bar drinks,” says Sarriugarte. “For a good long time after, we were the bar to hire. We’re mobile. We have a stage that goes with it, and a whole road show- it was just a fun little circus.”
All their intricately built wheeled creatures that followed the travelling circus have elaborate backstories too, and themed costumes that go along with each. The Travelling Wonders of the Boiler Bar, Snail and Electrobite all fall under Oilpunk (a play on the Steam Punk Edwardian upper crust look), serving prohibition era story line, with blue-collar worker aesthetic- coveralls, Henley t-shirts, pageboy caps. The Zeppelini naturally comes along with German airship crew outfits. The Serpents’ bring on the Valhalla gear. It is more “heaven of the Gods meets Vikings and Thor type of look,” says Sarriugarte. “So our interpretation is vintage military gear, helmets with hand forged wings.”
Their newest Burning Man creation is under way. “It’s a biomechanical space ship,” says Sarriugarte. “Our backstory is it’s the 1960s, we left earth on a secret mission, we went into space, now we’re back, and we found some really cool stuff out there.”
Burning Man, the annual weeklong festival of art, creativity, community and self-expression, originated in San Francisco‘s Baker Beach in the 80s and drifted to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It came from SRL, and every one of these industrial artists can trace their roots back to SRL or know someone who was in SRL, says Sarriugarte. “All that happened in San Francisco,” he says. “The dot-commers pushed them out of San Francisco and into Oakland, the final frontier.”
Oakland is a unique place, Sarriugarte says, and Burning Man has found its production and spiritual home here. “The craft industry here, and the artistry — no place in the world has this many artists doing big art like this,” he says. If you’re out on the Burning Man desert “looking at 100 pieces of art, 60 to 80 of those pieces came from here,” he says. “Even if they’re from New York, they’ll come set up shop here for a few months.”
Sarriugarte co-owns the West Oakland Kraftworks building, which has 20 units for industrial craftsmen and performance artists. “We sell them to the artists or businesses that are in those spaces so they have ownership,” he says. “The best way to help Oakland is to help the people that made it great buy into it.”
Sarriugarte takes pride in creating jobs for people through his art. “They’re real- they pay more than two to three times the minimum wage,” Sarriugarte says. “My new slogan is ‘my art equals blue collar jobs’ and that’s what’s important for growth and it’s sustainable too, it’s national. We’re not importing Chinese crap, and not dependent on what’s happening in the global market. Locally made, locally produced, and hires local.”
Being in the presence of Sarriugarte and Mate and their Wonka-esque warehouse, filled with Sci-Fi-fueled, 1920s circus, spiced with Lewis Carroll, and splashed with Franz Kafka “toys,” is like stepping into the past and the future in the exact same moment. Incidentally, Oakland’s past is what drives his dedication to the city’s artist community and its future. Which in turn, is a major factor behind his backing Libby Schaaf for mayor, and how she came to ride off from her first press conference in the giant snail, The Golden Mean.
Sarriugarte has been a board member of the West Oakland Commerce Association (WOCA) for 12 years, and says he’s been frustrated by Oakland’s past mayors. Schaaf, he says, was the first candidate who’s made him optimistic both about the city and about the special concerns of working artists.
It was Schaaf, for example, who introduced to the City Council its current legislation requiring that new commercial construction projects dedicate 1% of their budget to public art, with encouragement to showcase local artists and non-profit arts organizations.
Sarriugarte pushed for Schaaf, and hung around the campaign a lot. “It’s the first time I’ve seen my artist friends vote,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve heard the politicians actually talk about art and how important it is. It started that conversation going.”
He feels optimistic about the artists getting “gelled enough,” and hoping with Schaaf’s support “to sort of protect the wonderfulness of what everyone loves about Oakland,” he says. “My big push with her is to make sure that happens; her big thing is that she wants more housing.”
Sarriugarte wants to protect the industrial land for artists from becoming residential. “As soon as that competition hits, there’s no way to compete,” he says. “I can, but an artist can’t compete with what a residential person is willing to pay. They’ll lose their gallery space or their shop space and Oakland will start flipping into…” In unison, Mate and Sarriugarte say, “San Francisco.”
So one Sunday before the election, Sarriugarte drove the stick-shift giant snail through Oakland city streets over to Schaaf’s campaign headquarters and shot fire off. “It’s street legal,” says Sarriugarte of The Golden Mean, which he’s on occasion revved up to 62 miles per hour. “It handles the streets great for a snail.”
Someone took a video of the snail at Schaaf’s event that day “and said something along the lines of ‘Libby’s campaign is now on fire,’ ” Sarriugarte says. “And that kind of got a little on the viral side.” People were “digging it,” he says, Schaaf had made a big impact among Oakland’s artists, and “I think she realized that this could be bigger,” Sarriugarte says.
On election night Sarriugarte and his crew stayed at Schaaf HQ until 3 a.m. She asked him to come with The Golden Mean to the victory press conference being held the following day.
The next morning, he got in his Snail and drove over to Lake Merritt. The Snail seats six, but has fit “19 people inside it, with a tuba and a drum.” Sarriugarte says. “Like those 1960s ads when they stuffed people in phone booths.” On this day, for a change of pace, Oakland’s new mayor would take the snail for a spin. “None of us had really talked about it,” he says. “I was dressed in my shop clothes.”
Everyone packed around the snail, “It was thick,” Sarriugarte says. “She’s never shot it or been around the car. She’s smiling, doing her thing. ‘Let everybody get back,’ I said.” Schaaf pulled on the snail’s reins, shooting fire orbs into the air, above the crowd.
“We were just going to drive out, and we drive to the end, and I realized there was no way to get out,” Sarriugarte says. “So we did a U-Turn on the grass and came back through the crowd, and then as we’re driving back I’m like, ‘Now what, Libby? What are we doing?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know, let’s go to lunch.’”
Sarriugarte’s laughing now. “So we drove over to the Boat House [The Lake Chalet],” he says. They handed the snail keys to a valet, who looked both startled and unhappy about this, and Sarriugarte and the new mayor of Oakland went inside for lunch.
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Wow..you’re ride bike is so hot! I like it!