Hobo nickels: Colorado artist Adam Leech needs help to highlight the lost folk-art form

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Adam Leech, who owns Leechpit, a vintage clothing and collectibles store in Colorado Springs, has been obsessed for years by an unusual folk art form called hobo nickels. Starting with buffalo nickels, which were made by the U.S. Mint from 1913 to 1938, hobo nickel artists carve their own caricatures, often scruffy looking men with beards and hats, into the soft metal of the coins. Leech is so passionate about the mostly forgotten tradition that he and friend and accomplished cameraman Jim Dziura set off on a one-week quest at the beginning of this year hoping to make a documentary, A Nickel and a Nail. But Leech, who carves hobo nickels himself and sells them for $50 to $100 a pop, doesn't have the money to turn it into a proper film, so he's gone to the online fundraising platform Kickstarter.com where he's amassed more than $12,000. He has until November 12 left to raise an additional $26,000 to make this a reality.

That's not much time, but "Hobos never say die" says Leech, who is familiar with Kickstarter and has seen projects make their goal in the last hour of their run.

Most of his backing right now comes from friends, family and hobo nickel enthusiasts he's met at his store on the road. The funds he is seeking, $38,013.05, would cover the entire film and allow he and Dziura to set a release goal for January 2013, coinciding with the 100 year anniversary of both the buffalo nickel and the hobo nickel.

Hobo nickels got their start in the early part of the twentieth century when "hobos," prisoners and other people with more time than money would carve the coins with nails, hoping to trade these small works of art for a meal or a bed instead of five cents. The tradition was popular during the Great Depression as well.

A Nickel and a Nail aims to be an expansive history of the hobo nickel. Leech interviewed collectors, folklorists, Original Hobo Nickel Society members including the president, Archie Taylor II, and Taylor's father, who was president before him. He has also lined up musical acts for the soundtrack.

"Nobody really knows about it," Leech says about hobo nickels. "It's fascinating, even people who should know [i.e. coin collectors] don't."

Leech and Dziura brought no money on their trip aside from the defaced coins jingling in their pockets; and they had no itinerary, train-hopping, hitch-hiking, and dumpster-diving across the states using hobo nickels as gifts for those who helped them. The pair left Colorado Springs on January 1, 2011, and arrived in Tampa, Florida, is time to meet up with the Original Hobo Nickel Society at a coin show one week later.

Visit A Nickel and a Nail's kickstarter page here for more information and to donate. Read about Leech's trip on his blog here.

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