How Banksy Forced Hal Samples to Finish Doc About Homeless Man Living Outside L.A.

Tachowa Covington and his former home in a still from Hal Samples's in-progress Something From Nothing. The whole trailer's after the jump.
Tachowa Covington and his former home in a still from Hal Samples's in-progress Something From Nothing. The whole trailer's after the jump.

Over the years photographer Hal Samples has shown me bits and pieces of his in-progress documentary about Tachowa Covington, who turned an abandoned water tank on the Pacific Coast Highway outside of Los Angeles into his home. Samples has been shooting Covington since the fall of '08; just last summer he shot Richardson's own Caleb Jones performing in the tricked-out tanker. It was part of his so-called "Samples of Society" series devoted to the down but not yet out for the count.

But Samples, who years ago was working on that doc about the homeless in Dallas, never had much impetus to finish the doc -- that is, not till earlier this year, when legendarily mysterious U.K. street artist Banksy, who was in L.A. for his Oscar-nominated doc Exit Through the Gift Shop, decided to turn Covington's home into a canvas, stenciling on its side the phrase, in all caps, "This Looks a Bit Like an Elephant." At which point Covington's home was snatched off the abandoned site and offered for sale by something called the Mint Currency, whose shadowy origins were detailed in the U.K. Independent in March. And Covington was left homeless once more.

That act, Samples says today, "caused an upheaval of my friend's home." Covington, he says, is now living in a motel and having a hard time adjusting, given his spending almost three decades living on the fringes.

I bothered the photographer during his lunch near the SMU campus today because Brother Bill Holston directed my attention this afternoon to his Kickstarter page: The Deep Ellum-living photographer's trying to raise $30,000 to wrap the film, titled Something For Nothing, by no later than fall, when most film fests start selecting their offerings for next year's lineups. Since the launch last week, 16 donors have so far kicked in $1,505.

"We're hoping that once we finish this and submit it to the festivals, we can get it picked up and afford to buy him a more permanent residence," Hal says. "That's the end goal. He can't have his old life back now. He's calling me every day, and he's got good spirits, because he knows we're working on it. At least using Kickstarter, people can now contribute and begin to own their piece of the project."

I asked him how, exactly, did a Dallas photographer wind up making a doc about a homeless man living in L.A.? Turns out, Samples says, you can blame our art director.

In April '08, Samples opened his Main Street gallery; by August, he says, he was burned out, fried. Around the same time, our Alexander Flores, who'd hired Samples to shoot his wedding, coughed up some airline vouchers the photographer could use to take a round-trip vacation anywhere he wanted. He invited another Observer contributor, Dylan Hollingsworth, and off they went to L.A. for a three-night weekend excursion "just to get something different in our cameras," as Samples puts it. "We weren't going to work."

Shortly after landing they ended up Venice. Hollingsworth went off to watch beach-goers fly box kites, while Samples says he met a woman "who looked just like Mary Poppins, except with dirty fingernails." He went to talk to her but was cornered instead by Covington.

"And he says, 'I had a dream about you,'" Samples recounts. "He says, 'God told me you were going to make a movie about me.' And I said, 'Yeah ... OK.'  Then he says, 'No, there's two of you,' and I said, 'Yeah, the other guy's over there.' I told Dylan and he said, 'You told me we're not going to do this kind of stuff.' But we agreed, and we walked up the freeway, and we entered the genie bottle. And we didn't leave."

Samples says he's been out there nine times to gather more footage. But, he says, he never knew what exactly he'd end up doing with it. Then along came Banksy.

"It' been self-produced along the way, and we've been shooting wedding and babies and stuff for the Observer -- whatever it takes," he says. "But at that pace we can only generate a few extra dollars a month, not $30,000, so this is a way for people to kick in and own a piece of it. And Banksy has agreed, once we finish it, to collaborate on imaging, marketing and commenting on the film. He feels like this was a lesson for him to learn as well. And he likes the fact it's very poignant."

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