The Life And Times of Bumdog, LA Artist And 'Career Homeless Bum'
"Not all those who wander are lost."
They call him Bumdog. Well, he calls himself Bumdog. He's got shirts featuring said name and his distinctive silhouette he'll sell you for $75. He is on the streets by choice, describing himself as a "career homeless bum." When I buy us lunch at Lulu's Café in the Fairfax District I notice he's a popular guy. As we're outside eating, people passing by say "hello," others stop to greet him. One woman introduces him to her friend and they exchange pleasantries.
People in the neighborhood know Bumdog. At an art gallery not far away he met broadcaster Mark Thompson, who later interviewed him on his podcast, The Edge. He even got some space in the Los Angeles Times recently.
I met Bumdog Torres a few weeks prior to our interview while sitting outside the Starbucks on the corner of Beverly and Detroit. I was reading Brave New World, using my TIFF membership card as a bookmark. He saw it and struck up a conversation. We talked about movies, books, photography. Turns out, Bumdog is a skilled photographer. It's one of his many talents.
He was raised in the Crenshaw District by his politically active mother. He told Thompson that one of his earliest memories was attending a Free Angela Davis rally with her. At times, he and his mom stayed in hotels, a situation he compared to being near homeless, "a Florida Project type of deal." He wasn't a big fan of school. After taking medical leave in the seventh grade, he never returned.
Do not take this to mean Bumdog is stupid or uneducated. He is well read, a fan of Schopenhauer, Socrates and Diogenes. His mother kept lots of books, which he readily consumed.
He was never drawn to the life of the average late-capitalist worker. He preferred his freedom. During his interview with Thompson, Bumdog said he was inspired by the "bums" he saw growing up.
"Back then, these were men who'd just decided to, you know, sleep on the sidewalk and just not get up. I used to get on the bus and, on the way to school, I used to just envy them. You just lay on the sidewalk and just watch the world go by. That's something I admired. I thought I was just nuts and then I started reading up on Buddhism and Daoism [sic] and I realized there was a precedent for my aspirations," he told Thompson.
He started living on the street when he was in his early twenties. Not just L.A.'s streets though. Bumdog is a world traveler. San Francisco led him to Las Vegas then to Florida. He eventually found his way to England, the Netherlands, France, and Morocco. He made money in various ways. In England, he had a "hustle" where he joined up with a crew to steal antique fireplaces out of old buildings.
Eventually, he got kicked out of Spain and ended up back in the United States.
"I was over my visa. They caught me up in the mountains and when I was living up in the mountains, they realized I didn't have any money," he said. That was the mid-'90s.
From 2011 to 2014, he lived in Thailand. He taught English, worked as a translator and announced Muay Thai bouts. He says it was one of his favorite places (friendly people, delicious food), the other being the south of France (beautiful countryside).
After another visa issue, he wound up back in the U.S. Since then he has lived in Los Angeles and mostly keeps to the Westside. His day-to-day is different. Sometimes, he's working on a project, sometimes he's trying to make money, sometimes he's just passing the time. At night, he sleeps in parking lots, in abandoned buildings, on side streets.
In addition to his travels, Bumdog has completed what so many Angelenos only talk about doing. He has directed a feature film. His creation, Sketches Of Nothing By A Complete Nobody, is a near two-and-a-half hour collection of dreamlike images, music videos, and vignettes that follow Bumdog's wanderings and daily activities around the city.
It took him three years to finish. He got the idea when a friend filmed him and showed him a demonstration of iMovie. He would find people who had cheap, "little one chip" camcorders and shoot scenes whenever and wherever he could.
Bumdog has called the movie "unwatchable." He's self-deprecating like that. It's constrained by low-end equipment and bad sound. Still, Bumdog is a natural talent with a sharp eye for Los Angeles. The streets, the lighting, the murals, the parking lots. He captures the feeling of being in this city in a way few filmmakers have achieved. In one scene, he has a wide-ranging, nearly 15-minute conversation with an Orthodox Jewish woman about faith, God and mental health. It's excellent.
"So this whole movie is for you, to throw in your scrapbook, photo album, closet, or the bottom pit of your storage. To pull out in twenty years and say 'oh yeah, I remember that bum,'" the dedication reads in part. "So the question begs 'was it worth all the heartache everyday for 3 years, just to make a home movie for your friends to watch once every decade?' The answer is: friendship is the only thing that's worth it."
Anyone who knows anything about filmmaking knows it's a collaborative exercise, and Bumdog is no diva. He's not one to forget those who helped him.
"It was about friendship. When you're making a film, all you think about is the people who aren't helping you. You get very, very bitter as you're making it. But after you're finished, all you can think about is the people who actually helped you," Bumdog says.
He makes money by selling Sketches Of Nothing DVDs on the street for $25 a piece.
He's skilled at teaching the craft, too. He says he once had an offer to teach film in India. He has produced a series of how-to videos, aptly called "The Bumdog School of Film." I'm a big fan of "The 12 Shots of Composition," which provides advice that has improved my own photography.
"So, now you might be asking yourself, how can some career homeless bum teach you how to make a film?" he says in the introductory video. "Well, for one thing, this career homeless bum actually made a film, and I did it with less resources than 99% of the people who are watching this now. And if I can do it, you have no excuses."
When Bumdog first showed me some of his photography I was so mesmerized I bought three photos. He's a master of street photography and portraits, especially self-portraits. He likes to shoot them in a mirror à la one of his inspirations, Vivian Maier.
As for his motivations, Bumdog is without a hint of pretension. "It's just something I know how to do," he says of his art.
Later, he says, "It's just a knack. I just have a natural talent for it. I'm just a naturally creative person."
You can see that talent in the beautiful, gritty images he posts on his Instagram page. They don't show the world through rose-colored glasses but they're not cynical or misanthropic. They offer a clear-eyed view of the city and its people. The ability to render life is something he respects. He's a realist, an admirer of Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.
"I like underground writers," Bumdog says of Bukowski.
"I'd never read Dickens, but when I went to London I met those characters that he described, and they were accurate characters. That's what gave me a perspective on this."
Bumdog is a writer, too. He has self-published a book, also titled Sketches Of Nothing By A Complete Nobody (the basis for the film), and posts some of his writing on his Medium account.
There are times when his work reminds you that his life isn't a cakewalk. The caption on one picture, taken from inside a dumpster looking out at the soaked streets during a rainstorm, reads, "Man this is the coldest and wettest I've been in a long time."
I ask him how he doesn't get hypothermia. "The grace of God," he replies.
Make no mistake, Bumdog isn't a complainer, and he doesn't fish for pity. He has had jobs intermittently over the years. Selling furniture and doing a little graphic design, for example. But he's much more critical of the two-and-a-half years he spent living in an apartment on Beverly Boulevard. He ended up favoring the internet and TV above all else. He says living on the streets helps him stay sharp.
"I accomplish more on the streets than most people do in their homes. I'm much more creative when I'm on the streets," he says.
For now, the 50-year-old Bumdog gets by selling his art and with some help from social programs. He is still taking photos and making movies. He shot my portrait and I helped him film a scene for his new project, a recently premiered mockumentary entitled Tarantino's Basterds: The Homeless Filmmakers of Hollywood.
More than 4 million people live in Los Angeles. From his home on the streets, Bumdog stands as a chronicler of them. He has traveled the world, and through film, photos and literature lends us a glimpse of his unique perspective. It is there, available to anyone curious and wise enough to seek it out.