Photo by James BunoanDecember is the best time to buy old stuff in America, Rin Tanaka tells me as we mill about outside his tiny/crowded San Clemente apartment. We're outside because one wall of his place is almost totally engulfed in day-glow and metal-flake motorcycle helmets while the bedroom has been rendered nearly unusable for all the boxes of T-shirts.
That's a lot of stuff, but stuff—American stuff—is what Tanaka is all about. He came here seven years ago from Yokohama to worship at the throne/garage/storage unit of American pop culture: our motorcycle jackets; our skateboards; our 1952 Buco J-100 leather racing shirt, unlined with the rare white tag. And he has found the best time to get the stuff is when Americans are gearing up to buy even more. But it's not enough for Tanaka, 34, to get what he wants; he desires to know all about these American things: Why did this jacket become the quintessential motorcycle jacket? What happened at that surfing contest spelled out on your faded T-shirt? Why did everyone ride Santa Cruz skateboards in the '80s?
Tanaka makes his living documenting our cultural dross, some of which he's bought, much of it bestowed—people see him as carrying on a tradition, so they give him stuff. He's written five books about our castoffs: two about T-shirts; one about motorcycle helmets; one about motorcycle jackets; and the latest about Steve McQueen, Steve McQueen 40 Summers Ago, which came out in September—but all five make one point.
"Local people never pay attention to local things. When I was in Japan, I didn't care about Japanese history," he tells me from his perch atop his spindly, faded-orange 1971 Yamaha DT1 dirt bike.
Instead, Tanaka cares about ourpop-culture history. McQueen is a lifelong hero, responsible for Tanaka's cultural awakening at the age of 13, when he saw a Japanese Levi's commercial featuring the actor in the motorcycle flick On Any Sunday.
The DT1, Yamaha's first dirt bike for the U.S. market, is important to Tanaka because while the bike may be Japanese, it embodies the quintessentially American sport of motocross. So when he and a friend were driving through North Hollywood last December, when he saw the bike languishing by the side of a house, they pulled over. Did the people inside want it? They'd take $500. Tanaka reached for his wallet. He rode the bike all the way home to San Clemente on surface streets, a trip that took hours. Why?
"This is American history," he says matter-of-factly. "Why do Japanese have to make it?"
Reading between the language barrier, Tanaka doesn't mean that the Japanese make American history, simply that they appreciate American pop culture. This appreciation in turn helps Americans appreciate American pop culture. Need a roadmap?
Here's how it works: a handful of Japanese alchemists with highlighted shag haircuts—swapmeeters, authors, vintage buffs—buy up stacks of Levi's, vintage Air Jordans, T-shirts or army-surplus khakis at local swaps, out-of-the-way antique stores, garage or estate sales. They ship them home to stores with names like Nude Trump, sell them to one another, and write about them in magazine articles and self-published books—Tanaka publishes his own books under the imprint of Cycleman Books. The American pilot fish—various wandering anachronisms, vintage-clothing-store owners, and TV- and movie-wardrobe consultants—meet these magicians at antique clothing expos or buy copies of their books. Then our people make it cool over here again, helped along by our own sharpening sense of the cultural irony and kitsch inherent when you wear a T-shirt promoting the '63 Pomona Winternationals drag races but drive a Scion. It's maybe nothing you or your parents or grandparents haven't heard of; it's old stuff, but reflected, validated in their eyes, it becomes hip—and expensive—again.
Is it really a coincidence Tanaka's book on Steve McQueen came out right about the time both Lee Jeans and Ford unveiled marketing campaigns focused on the icon—Lee's employing a Sheryl Crow song about McQueen; Ford using footage from the car/cop classic Bullitt? Maybe, or maybe Tanaka is able to somehow forecast the old things we'll rediscover next.
He still speaks and writes in broken English—"There is nothing but T-shirts to make us free and comfortable," "He is a still pure surfer with waves always on his mind"—and doesn't give away much about his own inner workings. But he has a detective's ability to find the key people behind the trends—not just the Svengalis, but also the craftsmen sewing the leather jackets, shaping the surfboards, carving empty swimming pools on skateboards: 1980s Maui & Sons guru Jeff Yokoyama, now of Modern Amusement; Katin's seamstress Sato Hughes; shaper Dale Velzy; surfer/artist Thomas Campbell—like Tanaka, all living in Orange County—as well as the Checkers motorcycle club; the Choppers car club; Sonny Barger; and Stanley Mouse.
He sees what it's about, and he takes pictures. His studio shots of ancient clothes—ironed just enough, draped on the floor just inches below the lights—are a whole other story. He publishes the results, laced with barely enough commentary, letting the artifacts speak.
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Tanaka's books are part Boswell, part Margaret Mead to those who see truth and purpose in worn T-shirts stinky with resin and B.O. from retired pro surfers such as Mickey Munoz; dead-stock, never-worn T-shirts touting Iskenderian racing cams, Muscle Beach or doing it in a van; as well as Captain America-style motorcycle helmets and 1970s clothing catalogs.
And then the question isn't why our old stuff and old people were so great; it's why we don't revere them now, why there's not a Steve McQueen library, a museum of vintage leather jackets, a publicly available collection by the two feuding Brucker brothers who bought all the Von Dutch and Ed Roth artifacts, or a motorcycle helmet repository.
This is a history you don't read in books—well, except ones like Tanaka's.
"Nowadays, lots of people are dying, so this is the last time to research this era," Tanaka says. "So I'm always in a hurry to meet them before they die."