Five years ago, two Dallas photographers ran into a man on a Southern California beach. He invited them up the Pacific Coast Highway to see where he lived – inside an elevated water tank. They developed an unlikely friendship, and made a movie in the process. Contributor Audra Schroeder traces how their chance meeting lead to swordplay, a brush with an art world superstar and a lasting connection.
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Tachowa Covington introduced himself to Dallas photographer Hal Samples with this line:
“I had a dream about you. God told me that you were going to make a movie about me.”
That was 2008, the beginning of their story. Samples was in Venice Beach, Calif., on vacation with fellow Dallas photographer Dylan Hollingsworth. He says Covington, a man he”d never met before, appeared out of nowhere and revealed his prophecy. Samples decided to trust him.
Shortly after their meeting, Covington invited the two men to check out the water tank he lived in, just off the Pacific Coast Highway. It was white and round, elevated roughly 30 feet in the air by six beams. They climbed up a ladder, across the top of the slightly rusted cylinder, and down into Covington”s home. It was there they started making a movie about him.
“Inside of it was a lot of effects,” Samples says. “He had electricity from a generator, hardwood floors, mosaic-tiled walls, all the spices for his cooking, workable surveillance cameras, LED lighting, surround-sound system, television, game stations, movies, stereo, peacock-covered bedspread, hieroglyphics. And he put on a little show for us.”
After settling in, Covington asked Samples to hand him a sword, which he”d anointed “The Sword of Truth.” They”d only known Covington for a couple hours at this point, but they documented the scene, Samples on video, Hollingsworth in photos. In the background of Samples” video, you can hear the opening sequence music of the movie The Secret building to a crescendo. In the foreground, Covington sets the scene.
Hollingsworth remembers feeling a little anxious about the appearance of a sword, and being struck by the theatrics.
“He continued to be the good guy we initially thought he was,” he says. “But for that moment, all hairs stand up on your neck, you”re as alive as you”ve ever been, and you”re wondering what”s going to happen in the next five minutes. And it”s interesting that no one in the whole world knows that Hal and I are in this tank right now.”
Covington, who is now in his early 50s, enjoys performing. He”s been a Michael Jackson impersonator. He”d performed as a rollerblading superhero named “Rollerball,” who patrolled Venice Beach. He would often carry his sword as he walked along the tank”s ocean-front property, a king and his castle. The owner of the property let Covington stay on the land as long as he kept vagrants away. The tank had been graffitied in the past, and he always painted over it, save for one – “Rollerball.”
In February 2011, someone else tagged the tank. It was stenciled with the words, “This looks a bit like an elephant,” and for a few days, the idea of the tank as a metaphor was writ large. Then it was discovered UK artist Banksy was behind it.
The Bristol-raised Banksy is known for his subversive graffiti and street art, which often lampoons politics or the mainstream art world. He”s also known for being impressively secretive, and his true identity is still a mystery. He was in L.A. for the Oscars for Exit Through the Gift Shop, the 2010 documentary about his work, which he directed. One of the segments focuses on “Barely Legal,” his 2006 exhibit in L.A., which featured a live pink-and-gold-painted elephant as its centerpiece, riffing on the idea of poverty as an elephant in the room. Three days after the stencil appeared on the tank, Covington”s home was purchased, dismantled via crane, and shipped off to a warehouse.
When Samples looked into the company that purchased it, he found it was called Mint Currency, an “art preservation company that was developed right before the purchase of the tank.” When Mint Currency attempted to sell it a month later, Banksy”s own preservation company, Pest Control, intervened. They needed a certificate of authenticity to pass it off as a real Banksy, and interest in the piece stalled. Last Samples heard, the tank was at a military base in Malibu.
After the incident, Banksy, who likely had no idea this graffiti would displace someone, arranged for Covington to receive several months of financial help. He was able to get a car and a laptop, and his outlook brightened somewhat. Hollingsworth remembers:
“He had a convertible. He had a small laptop, and he liked to put it on the dashboard. If the police could have one, he wanted to have one. One of my favorite days with him was driving down Pacific Coast Highway, listening to Tupac, and going to his favorite rock that overlooks the ocean. So yeah, with that came certain freedoms and abilities. He was able to be a better host. But he was pretty adamant about, “This is not what I wanted. This doesn”t make my situation better. It”s never been things that I needed.””
But Covington is a man of faith: It lead him to Samples, and it would guide him elsewhere. He doesn”t mind living on the fringe. He says homelessness “is a state of mind.” Covington currently resides in a place he calls “Heaven”s Cove,” up in the hills not far from where he used to live. He has his entertainment area, books on Buddhism, his Bible and a few sleeping bags so he can still be a good host.
“I”ve tried to find another person, I”ve tried to find another Tachowa, all my life, and I can”t seem to find one,” Covington says. “I wonder what that purpose is. I”m just a man. I”m just a man with a good spirit. And with God”s guidance, he”s keeping me healthy and strong, to keep me coming up and down this mountain like Moses.”
In the past five years, Samples, Hollingsworth and a small group of friends with North Texas ties have become Covington”s unofficial support group. Samples alone has made more than a dozen trips to California. On one trip, he helped Covington find members of his estranged family, who also live in California. A few months ago, standing in the kitchen of his Dallas home, Samples pointed to a vase on a shelf. It”s Covington”s mother”s vase, but he gave it to Samples for safe keeping.
There have been other random encounters. One day, Samples and Hollingsworth were skating backwards down Venice Beach, filming Covington in his “Rollerball” outfit, when Gary Busey popped out an open window, drink in hand, to ask what they were doing.
Samples is currently in post-production on his documentary about Covington and has been revisiting years of video and audio. He says it’s now a matter of “whittling it down to a toothpick,” but Samples knows he still needs an ending for his movie. It”s difficult, because he”s become part of the plot.
A few months ago, he discovered based on the tank incident had been produced last year in the UK. It was written by Tom Wainwright and directed by Emma Callander and has already received a few positive reviews. Samples and Covington recently Skyped with them. This week, Samples will go to the UK to and meet the alternate-reality version of Covington, played by British actor Gary Beadle. The play is previewing at the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol, which is Banksy”s neighborhood.
When we last spoke, Samples related that, “Tachowa is rebuilding his armor and will be skating the beach as Rollerball,” which will return Covington to the beach where they met. Samples says he will go back out there. He needs to document this. To find an ending, perhaps he needs to go back to the beginning.