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IF YOU HAD ASKED A YOUNG DUANE FLATMO where he would be in his 60s, there is little chance his answer would have been where he finds himself these days, looking down at a cuddle puddle of young partygoers from atop a stage with his wife, artist Micki Dyson Flatmo, and the flaming mechanical octopus sculpture "El Pulpo Magnifico" by his side during a festival rave. It is the most recent chapter in an illustrious career that has seen him doing everything from playing guitar on live television to now standing on a stage with a fire-breathing metal octopus.

Flatmo is a hometown hero in Humboldt County due to his local murals and kinetic sculpture designs. While his impressive career started in Humboldt, his artistic nature showed its face long before he got here. Raised in Southern California, he was always drawing as a child. In high school, he connected with art teacher John O'Hare who nurtured his love of art while teaching him practical skills to help him survive in the world. "He taught me sign painting, all the letters and everything," said Flatmo. "He told me, 'Once you learn to sign paint, you can go to any town and pick up jobs.' So, that's kind of what I did."

After a brief stint at Grossmont College in San Diego, Flatmo made his way north to Humboldt County. He started out working part-time at Sears and painting signs on the side. After a while, the sign-painting business took off and Flatmo quit his job to work for himself full-time. Before long, this turned into a more creative endeavor: murals.

Flatmo's first mural project was on the side of Bucksport Sporting Goods on Broadway in Eureka in 1984. That high-profile painting of 19th century mountain men in a raging river put his artistic talents on the map. It was soon followed by another iconic landmark, the two-story mural looking down on the Los Bagels parking lot in Arcata. Depicting a community narrative, it was featured in a San Francisco Chronicle article, garnering Flatmo both attention and commissions. Although he went on to paint some 20 murals in Humboldt alone, being a muralist was just one part of his artistic life.

"I tend to go along and do something, and then it just shoots me in another direction," said Flatmo. "When you come to a Y in the road, I take it. First, I'm like, 'I'm a sign painter.' Then, 'No...hey, I'm going to be a muralist for a while.' But then it's, 'Oh now I'm a comedian. I always think if you get these choices, take 'em, and see how it goes. You can always go back to the place you left off."

Following his own advice, Flatmo let his career meander in several directions all at once and it flourished. He dabbled in comedy in the 1980s, coming up with a bit he performed at open mic comedy nights at the former Old Town Bar & Grill in which he played flamenco guitar with an eggbeater. The act took him to the TV show America's Funniest People and all the way to a David Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks" segment in 1992 and The Tonight Show a few years later. He played in several bands over the years as well, namely Puffin and Spudgun, an assemblage fronted by Flatmo that found local success around Humboldt bars and parties.

At the same time as he performed musically, Flatmo was gaining acclaim for his public murals both in Humboldt and in the Bay Area. He took on a mural class backed by funding from the California Arts Council, the Ink People Center for the Arts and the city of Eureka, the purposely challenging to enunciate Rural Burl Mural Bureau. For 12 years, he mentored teenage artists, some of whom were troubled kids sent to him through the probation department, teaching them how to create beautiful public art and helping guide them through the importance of being a positive community member. Among the many pieces by Flatmo and his students is the fun "No Barking Anytime" mural of dogs in line at a hydrant on F Street.

While impressive on their own, his mural and musical endeavors are not all that Flatmo has engaged in over the span of his lengthy career. He spent about 30 years designing label art for Foxfarm Soil Co. And what has brought him widespread fame and joy in his later career has been his kinetic art. Flatmo began competing in and working as part of the Kinetic Grand Championship in 1982. He participated in the race of DIY human-powered sculptures for 33 years, designing the poster and the map every year and helping to keep the art in the race alive by building incredibly rich artistic machines. His massive machines did not fare well in the actual races, which requires a downhill dune run, a water crossing in Humboldt Bay and a long haul from Arcata to Ferndale. However, builds like the "Mega Sore Ass," with its gigantic dinosaur skeleton, went a long way in winning the hearts of the audience. His first pyrotechnic kinetic sculpture, the 20-something-foot-long "Tin Pan Dragon" was the second sculpture Flatmo brought to the Burning Man festival in Nevada. It eventually spent a year on the road, traveling to different museums including the Smithsonian as part of the No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man exhibit.

From his dragon start, Flatmo tinkered with even more intricate builds, eventually crafting the 26-foot-tall "El Pulpo Mecanico," an enormous mechanical octopus made of found objects and scrap metal that spewed fire from its upward reaching tentacles. Making its debut at Burning Man in 2011, El Pulpo, as it's known to fans, soon became Flatmo's most-celebrated creation and was featured at several events before being sold to a private owner. "El Pulpo Mecanico" was then followed by its successor, "El Pulpo Magnifico," which stands even taller and shoots flames even higher. It is with this sculpture that Flatmo has been spending the most recent years, an adventure that fills Flatmo with joy.

"Tin Pan Dragon" got Flatmo noticed among the spectacles of Burning Man. "It slowly became me bringing out El Pulpo and that just hit people by storm," said Flatmo. "Now we are getting asked to go all over the place — we just went to Miami to shoot fire, we've done gigs in Las Vegas, in Telluride ... we've taken this thing all over."

What comes next for Flatmo? Well, that's anyone's guess. For now, he said, he and his wife are enjoying the ride. "We are constantly just looking at each other as we are jamming on the fire, wearing costumes, looking at all these young people raving around us, and we are like, 'are we really doing this at our age?' It's just a blast."

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Tamar Burris

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