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Daily Cougar Interview with C y b e r sAM about Tom

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> – How/when did you first meet Tom?

Well I never met him until much later, but seeing his shark car in pictures from BM 1995 on the endless playa horizon forever forged an image in my mind that was right on the cusp of what was real and what was imagination. Just seeing those pictures inspired me to build/convert a Bus and take it to Burning Man (thereby changing my life forever). That iconic image has always stuck with me and basically was the image in my head that for years represented Burning Man and Art Cars themselves. For many of us, he bridged what we just imagine is possible with what is possible. And not just from a the perspective that most have about Burning Man, which is they CREATE something, or DO something, or BE something wild just for the Burning Man Festival, than go back to their normal lives. Making art cars (and sculptures) was what Tom did all year round. It was his job — it was his life. He was truly living his dream. Doing what in 1996, was only not even an imaginable way of life for me. The first time I actually met and got to know Tom was at Burning Man 2002 when he was building the Whale on a school bus. People with school buses gravitate towards one another. I also saw him at many of the annual art car festivals in San Francisco. However, I drove the CYBERBUSS ( each year, he drove a different art car each year. You normally associate each person with their art car, and since he was in a different one each year it was like meeting a different person each year. It took me years to realize that I met this guy already. I just didn’t recognize his art car because it was new. I think he built over 30 art cars!

The whale

the whale

the whale


working on the whale - photo by Leo Nash

– What’s your favorite memory of him? Did you do an art piece with him and what was that like?

My favorite memory of Tom, without a doubt, was the Dinosaur Demolition Derby prank that we pulled on the art car fest in 2005 ( Tom was building these crazy Dinosaur Demolition Derby cars a few blocks from where I live in his spare time (with no funding – just for fun). All the art car people were coming by to see an artist’s studio in our neighborhood (bayview of SF) and Tom convinced the organizers to also have the art car artists to come by for a tour of his studio. He told them nothing more. Tom got the idea to prank them and we came over my place for breakfast and worked out the logistics. It was about 11AM on a week day. He had gotten a soon-to-be-crushed car from Ace 1 junk yark (the same place he got most of his cars to build art cars). As all the art car people parked their precious art cars near his studio one art car accidentally bumped into another art car. People gasped then gathered at the minor damage that was caused from the fender bender.

Just about that time one of the dinosaur demolition derby cars zipped by and out of site. Then a second one. A few heads turned. Then, like locusts, they started swarming around each other and driving very wildly, swerving back and forth. Then they started smashing into each other. Bits of pieces of metal was flying off the dinosaur cars. It was midday, so there was some traffic trying to get by while the spectacle was going on. A glass truck needed to get through. Someone jumped out into the street and directed traffic a bit to let the glass truck safely through. About that time Brian Goggin, mojo my dog, and myself, in newly changed clothes, attempted to drive our car though the madness. We were channeling Lenny and Squiggly from Laverne and Shirley and had to stop and wait for the dinosaur cars to move so we could get through. As one of the cars (driven by Flash) was backing up to turn around he backed into us. Again the art car people gasped. One of the organizers told me later that he got very nervous that Tom’s was being too wreck less. Visions of lawyers, liability and permit hassles for the event were flashing through his head.

We got out of the car and confronted Flash with arms raised. “Hey buddy what the fuck do you think you guys doing? We are going to need to see your insurance?” Flash replied with “I ain’t got no stinking insurance” and pushed me (I am in the yellow hat in the video). We start a Benny Hill type chase and as everyone is diverted by our little scuffle…Tom comes out of no where and T-bones our car. It was such a surprise that only one of our 3 cameramen actually got the initial smash on tape. Flash got back in his car and they both took turns smashing our little blue car into oblivion as we chased around hitting their cars with a tire iron. Each smash was so loud, so jarring. Its that kind of sound that you hear and go “oh my god”. Just kept happening over and over. Finally Flash and Tom took their bows and Brian and I crawled back in through the windows of our car (because the doors were too smashed in to open anymore). To our surprise the car started right up. We limped the car away flipping the bird to everyone.

The ending to the story is that after a few months of parking these unregistered art cars in various places in San Francisco. They both got towed away by the city and were not recoverable. Tom reacted so calmly. “Oh well I guess we will have to build some more.” I couldn’t believe it. I would have been outraged. He had so much grace.


One of the Dinosaur Demolition Derby cars

the blue car that was smashed up in the dinosaur demolition derby

the blue car that was smashed up in the dinosaur demolition derby

Did you do an art piece with him and what was that like?

I worked on several art projects with Tom. Primarily the cat car, Laughing Sal, the topsy turvvy bus, and two custom welding jobs he did for my own vehicles. I did a lot of the electrical wiring stuff for him on these projects. Working with him was amazing. He really was a master fabricator. He was always a pleasure to work with. I never saw him loose his cool or buckle under pressure or treat anyone unfairly. He worked fast and hard, but had fun and made it fun for everyone. The topsy turvvy bus was probably the biggest project that I worked on with him. A most incredible feat. However, the Laughing Sal project was my favorite experience working with him.

He and his crew build a bunch of carnival fun house type amusement pieces for burning man 2005. They built a huge 20 foot tall replica of Laughing Sal. His idea was to have an exercise bicycle make her move mechanically via bike chain. My idea, based on something another friend had done, was to use a ‘life cycle’ type bicycle that generates electricity – power her movement and laughter. We found one in a thrift store, and it was no small feat, but we got the bike to power a windshield wiper motor and an auto reverse cassette deck that went on when ever somebody pedaled the bike. It was such a great learning experience to see how the bike got harder to pedal based on the more stuff you powered with it. We all take electrical power for granted. It was extraordinary how Tom built the frame work for this piece and altered the pivot points, the hinges and the springs just right to accommodate the windshield wiper motor. Her movements were so life like. The first time we hooked it up and she moved it was like a Frankenstein story. She came to life literally. I will never forget her creepy shadows projected on the walls of the warehouse as she rocked back and forth with that spooky laughter.

That year was a particularly dusty year at burning man. All the big mechanical pieces jammed up, but Sal just keep in laughing and rocking through the whole event.

Laughing Sal

Laughing Sal

> – How would you describe him to someone who has only heard of him or only seen his work?

a humble, honorable gentleman, a master fabricator, a prankster, an activist, a role model, a saint.
and in his own terms “an ambassador of goodness”

> -Anything else you’d like readers to know about Tom and his contributions to art, your life, society?
Lot’s of stories and comments are coming in everyday still. For many of us here in San Francisco, we did not like the way the white house was going during the Bush years. We were endlessly frustrated and did not know how to express it without being consumed by negativity. Tom built art cars that were fun, funny and sent non-partisan type messages without offending everyone, without even having to open his mouth. He told people during his protests of the RNC in 04′ and 08′: “The way we are going to beat the bad guys is to have more fun than them.”

Possibly his greatest feat was taking dozens of bikes to Bosnia where he organized a kids bike parade and literally bridge the gap between some Croation kids and Serb kids.

The day after he died, another friend and I moved the art car that he drove daily from the garage to the location of where his memorial will be on May 1st. It was no easy feat to drive it. You could not put it in reverse and you could only pass it through neutral while in motion or it can get stuck. On the way over the bay bridge, during rush hour traffic, people were smiling at us and taking our picture. I told my friend, “look Tom’s dead and he is still making people smile”. We cried and smiled at the same time.

He was one of my role models, and in so many different types of situations that come up in the future – I can always ask myself, “What would Tom Kennedy have done?” ….and I will know just what to do. He has inspired us and know he will guide us.