Rin Tanaka was twelve years old when he first saw the movie On Any Sunday. The roar of Triumphs and Harley Davidsons, the soundtrack bursting with songs about freedom and flying and tasting the sun, Bruce Brown’s signature narration, that killer climax scene in which Steve McQueen, Mert Lawwill, and Malcolm Smith tear up the sand dunes—all of it enthralled him. But what really jumped off the screen and slapped him awake was McQueen’s 501s.
“New Levi’s was very expensive,” said Tanaka, a short Japanese man who, despite his fifteen years in the U.S., charmingly, often humorously, butchers English. “This is the reason I went to Tokyo, to Harajuku. In 1980 they just started vintage clothing business in Japan. Nobody called it vintage, just used.”
Tanaka has published twenty-one books, all of which feature his obsession with vintage Americana. His primary subjects are surfers, skateboarders, bikers, rockers, and hippies. His titles are specific: Motorcycle Helmet: 1930s-1990s, or Motorcycle Jackets: Ultimate Biker’s Fashions. He is best known for his My Freedamn! series, ten volumes strong and counting. On his website bio Tanaka calls himself a journalist and photographer, but he is more than this. He is a hunter, collector, timekeeper, and fetishist. Tell him you saw a rare 1930s biker jacket at a Salvation Army in Bakersfield, and it’s a good bet he’ll drop everything and charge up there.
On a sunny afternoon last summer, I met Tanaka at his Long Beach home. From the street it appeared nondescript—a modest, two-story 1950s ranch house. But inside was a trove of his passions that looked part art gallery, part vintage store, and part movie set. Tanaka was kind and gracious. He spoke in bold pronouncements, emphasized with sumo grunts. His body language was soft and delicate; he could not have been more polite. We sat at a small wooden table in his living room. To our left was a wall covered in motorcycle posters from the ‘70. To our right, a dense bookshelf topped with vintage motorcycle helmets. An old speaker rested against the wall behind me. It was obviously old, but nothing about it stopped me in my tracks. Tanaka explained that it was a 1958 JBL’s Hartsfield—“one of the most rare and super collectable in the American audio history.”
After studying photography and writing at Tokyo’s Keio University, Tanaka worked at an advertising agency. His position selling ads to newspapers was high-paying but unsatisfying. Obeying an inner tug, Tanaka and his Japanese wife relocated to California in 1998.
“The reason I moved from Japan to San Clemente is Dale Velzy was living there,” said Tanaka over cups of iced green tea. “I would like to meet him.”
Tanaka moved just a couple miles away from the legendary shaper. He and Velzy became friends. “I often went to his house. But he didn’t like to talk about surf. He has so many nice stories about movies and hot rod.”
Velzy introduced Tanaka to another surfing legend, Mickey Muñoz. Impressed by Tanaka’s passion, Muñoz brought him into his garage. “Mickey has all these boxes. I open them and discover the greatest T-shirt collection ever!”
Tanaka got excited when he talked about Southern California. In faded 501s and tie-dye Grateful Dead tee, he looked like a ‘70s skate rat. I’m reminded of that iconic Skateboarder cover of a sun-kissed Gregg Weaver carving barefoot in an empty pool. Images like this are splashed throughout Tanaka’s books.
He showed me his tilt/shift cameras, his lights, and the white backdrop on which he photographs his subject matter. He explained that his job has two parts: first hunting down and gathering up the material, then shooting it. I asked about the hunting part. “I’m always hanging out with people, and just talk like this, ‘What’s up? Like, do you have T-shirts or something? Maybe I can come by your house?’ So basically my researching job is just hang out with people. So, wasting time everyday!” He laughed.
He went on to explain that it’s actually more focused than this. He seeks out high-end collectors, dazzles them with his encyclopedic knowledge, and delights as they pull out their secret stashes—“for serious collectors only!” He said that knocking on the doors of old folk’s homes is by no means below him. “I like when they bring me into their garage and pull out boxes that haven’t been opened in decades.”
He took me upstairs to show me his office. An old case full of vintage RCA radio tubes danced with a motocross jersey signed by Motorsports Hall of Famer Dick Mann. A row of Eames molded plastic chairs squared off with a lineup of Fender guitars. Framed pictures covered the robin’s egg blue walls: black-and-white photos of old bluesmen, a signed Ronnie Wood drawing of John Belushi, a concert poster for Roy Buchanan.
I asked how his fascination with Americana started. He told me that he grew up in Yokohama, a U.S. naval base outside of Tokyo. “When I was kids I saw many American car in my town, because American military people drove American car. My hometown has many American culture due to the military.”
I’ve thought a lot about the Japanese fascination with Americana. They’re often more obsessive and fetishistic—about clothing, records, cars—than we are. I asked some of my Japanese friends about this. Most pointed to sakoku, meaning “chained country.” From the 1630s to 1853 Japan essentially shut its doors—no foreigner or Japanese could enter or leave the country on penalty of death. Their theory was that sakoku fueled a national curiosity with things outside of Japan that still exists to this day.
What does Tanaka think about this?
“During sakoku, 200 years, Japanese culture pop up. Like Hokusai [painter of one of the most famous waves in history]. Like kabuki theatre. Just domestic culture growing up big. Sakoku wasn’t bad for us.” Tanaka took a long sip of green tea. “After World War II lots of American military people living in Japan, so we start new friendship with American people. Japan was really poor people after World War II, and the United States was biggest economy giant country. So we should be like that—that was first motivation. We should be like American country.” He held up two fingers, twisted them around. “American people, Japanese people—opposite, very opposite. I like this big difference. I need two brain, two knowledge.” He laughed. “Japanese people watch more small details.”
Tanaka showed me a mid-century metal chair with a tag attached to it. He pointed to the faint signature and smiled cherubically. “Chair owned by Billy Wilder,” he said. He showed me a concert poster for bluesman Johnny Winter. He told me that American music played a big role in shaping his impressions of this country. I asked him how the reality of the U.S. differed from his expectations. “More fun than I expected,” he said. “I watched the movie Animal House, right? 1980s, 1990s American people more crazy. So I saw the last crazy American culture. Nowadays young people is very polite.” He picked up one of his guitars, strummed it. “I respect American crazy culture. Beyond the limited. Abstract. Beyond the standard.”
We headed out to his garage, where Tanaka keeps over 1,000 T-shirts. They were tucked away in boxes, stacked amid what looked like hundreds of boxes filled with his books. Echoing the surf/skate DIY ethos that fascinates him, Tanaka has self-published his entire My Freedamn! series. The books have sold well, spawning “Freedamn! Heads,” vintage Americana aficionados who know the pages of Tanaka’s books the way Deadheads know Jerry’s lyrics and Bob’s licks. In 2009 Tanaka received a $10,000 royalty. To celebrate he threw a giant party, which grew into “Inspiration,” an annual gathering in Southern California for art, fashion, culture, and vintage enthusiasts from around the globe.
I asked Tanaka about his dreams and goals. “My goal is fifty titles,” he said without hesitation. “Right now I have twenty-one, so I have twenty-nine more.” He laughed, looked out over what was a sort of jungle gym of collectables. “Bruce Brown has two crowns—very big motorcycle and surfing. This is my idea in dream way, get two crowns in two fields.”
*from The Surfer's Journal Volume 23 NO. 3