colin tunstall: I saw in the forward of My Freedamn! that a Robert Frank exhibition in April of 1994 was a catalyst to start this process of yours. Can you tell me about that?
rin tanaka: Robert Frank is very classic, right? Every young photographer has to study his photos, so I did the same thing. I love Robert Frank because his photography has this big power. He didn’t take photos for a while, so in the ‘90s he had just come back into the public. It had a big impact. I had been working for the magazine business for many, many years—since 1990. In 2003, I was 33 years old, so I wanted to have my own business. Around this time, I found a good sponsor from a Japanese printing company. They bought me the printing, because printing costs are expensive.
ct: Very expensive.
rt: I couldn’t afford to do it by myself, because I would’ve needed $50,000. I found a nice sponsor in 2003 and I’ve been on publishing for the last ten years. I’ve published sixteen titles.
ct: Is this all with the same publisher?
rt: Yes, the same publisher—me.
ct: That’s very ambitious. I give you a lot of credit for pulling that off.
rt: It’s hard.
ct: It’s a pretty ambitious project to take all the photos, and then to also spend the time to go and find everything. What was the process like starting off?
rt: My process starts in my brain. I’m always thinking of new projects in my mind. The next step is to travel out and find nice vintage. In 2003, it was easier to find nice vintage stuff. Right now it’s very difficult. I have so many friends from the vintage clothing industry. It’s a small lot. I’ve loved vintage clothes since I was about twelve years old. I started collecting vintage stuff when I was in junior high school, so I know so many people in the worldwide vintage clothing industry. And then after I take photos, I start editing by myself. I used to use film, and then in around 2007, I changed to digital. Right now, I use InDesign by myself, and then my designer finishes all of the layouts.
ct: Some of the people you’ve met along the way, has that inspired the vintage? You had pictures of Joel Tudor and Dale Velzy. It seems like the first issue of My Freedamn! is inspired by surfing and skateboarding. You focused specifically on Southern California. Why is that?
rt: I’ve lived in California for fifteen years. New York City is always the center, but California is a mellower place.
ct: Very mellow.
rt: California always has a more free and easy way. I grew up in Tokyo, which is a very busy place, like New York. California is the opposite. And many unique people are gathering here right now. California has been very hot for the last ten years.
ct: And how did you gain access to Donald Takayama? Was this something that you specifically wanted to include with the vintage clothes? What was the reason for choosing these certain people to meet, photograph, and pair along with the clothes?
rt: I was working for a Japanese magazine at that time. Free and Easy was my main job. So I took photos of Takayama for a Japanese magazine first. But magazines only use two or three photos, and I took 100, so I tried to use the others for other projects.
I’m a Japanese guy, so my eye is always that of the passenger. I’m a spy from Japan with a camera.
ct: As you’ve started your own business and worked on future books, have you continued with the same process of finding vintage?
rt: Yes, I always did two things at the same time: working for magazines and researching vintage clothing. When I went to people’s houses, I’d ask them if they had any old t-shirts. I’m always looking for pack rat people.
ct: And how did you get started collecting clothes? What was one of your first vintage pieces?
rt: In 1983, I had a pair of Levis 501s. I got money from my grandma as a New Year’s gift, so I went to a vintage clothing store in Tokyo. It used to be that the 501s were much cheaper. Maybe I paid $50.
ct: Wow, that was expensive back then.
rt: Yeah, for me, $50 was very expensive in 1983. Right now, it would be $1,000, or $2,000.
ct: Since your first My Freedamn! book, which was focused on beach and surf culture, you’ve expanded on to other books. Can you tell us about that?
rt: Originally, I was more popular in the leather industry. Before My Freedamn! I had already published five books about motorcycle jackets. This was my main job in early times before My Freedamn! But I’m living in California, and I’m surfing every day, so I met so many new people. For example, my neighbor was Tony Alva. I saw him every day, because he surfed too. Sacramento was a great location to meet famous surfers and skaters. My Freedamn! started very naturally. It was just my life, my lifestyle.
ct: What happens with all the stuff you collect? Do you sell it?
rt: No, I’m not a collector like that. I have so many personal t-shirts, but I’m not a collector. I just moved to a new place in Long Beach, so this is the time to sell. I have so much stuff.
ct: I’m sure a lot of people were there, looking for this kind of stuff.
rt: Yeah, I’ve finally become a pack rat too. I have so much junk in my garage and in my room.
ct: So most of the stuff that you put in your books isn’t stuff that you purchase, you just take pictures?
rt: Yes, I go to a collector’s house and bring my photo equipment to the garage.
ct: Can you talk about any standout pack rats?
rt: Cliff Major from Portland, Oregon. He owned a motorcycle store. His store was full, completely full. You couldn’t walk the upstairs there. There were so many motorcycle parts, and his upstairs had so many accessories. The second floor had lots of old motorcycle helmets. I went to his store in the 1990s. So many Japanese people went to his house to buy his helmets. He might have had a thousand helmets in stock. Nowadays, motorcycle helmets are really popular among motorcycle people, but it used to be that only Japanese people bought them from his store. He had so much good stuff. He sold his store ten years ago for maybe a couple million dollars. He was one of the best pack rats in the United States.
ct: You’ve talked about how in Japan there is a different mentality towards certain items. Are there certain things that people in the States have responded to more?
rt: The biggest difference is space. The United States has more space, especially in the Midwest, or anywhere outside of the big cities. American people have lots of space, so they collect anything they like. Japan has a space problem, so the Japanese are very picky. But it’s basically same mentality. Everyone likes what we call “the good shit.”
ct: Have there been any items that have blown your mind? Are there certain designs, or articles of clothing that have really stood out?
rt: You know, I’ve seen so much great stuff in the past 20 years, so it’s very difficult to answer that question. But, for example, with vintage surf stuff, it’d maybe be Phil Edwards’ t-shirts, and Mickey Muñoz’s. Phil Edwards was my neighbor, but he didn’t accept any interviews. He was hiding from the industry for a while. Phil Edwards was one of the top surfers in history, and his t-shirts were amazing.
ct: Very cool. Do you know that Mickey Muñoz was born in New York City?
rt: I didn’t know that. He’s a neighbor too. Mickey is a good pack rat.
ct: I presume that a lot of people go through your books and contact you to ask how they can purchase some of the items. Does that happen quite frequently?
rt: Sometimes, but they know I’m not a collector. Everyone knows it’s not easy to find good vintage.
ct: What’s the most enjoyable part of what you do?
rt: Taking photos. When I stop by a collector’s house, they give me space, mainly inside the garage. A garage is very dark, so I take photos inside garages for half-days, mostly. That time is great, because I can touch great vintage stuff during my photo shoots. That’s my favorite. I hate editorial time, because it takes so much time to edit.
ct: Going back to Robert Frank, I’ve seen his books and been to his shows, and it’s very inspirational. This whole thing is a way for you to explore America, not only through photos of people, but the stuff that people wore. It’s different than Robert Frank, but you’re kind of doing the same thing in another way.
rt: Maybe it’s the same mentality, because Robert Frank is not originally American, he came from Europe. His eye is not American; he’s just a passenger. I’m a Japanese guy, so my eye is always that of the passenger. I’m a spy from Japan with a camera.
ct: Do you get back to Japan very often?
rt: Every three months, for editing. My designer lives in Tokyo, so I have to go back every three months. Japan and the United States are completely different. I enjoy the difference.
ct: I’ve noticed that some American vintage is easier to find in Japan than it is here.
ct: There are so many good vintage places in Tokyo, and in Kobe as well.
rt: Kobe is good too. My hometown is Yokohama, next to Tokyo. It’s more of a bay city, like San Francisco. When I was a kid, there was a big American military station located in Yokohama, so many American military people lived there. When I grew up, I saw so many nice American cars.
ct: And how did you start surfing?
rt: Surfing came much later. I was a big music guy. When I came to the United States at 20 years of age, I wanted to study music. This is was main reason I came to the United States, and then later I became a photographer. Surfing is much later, yeah, when I was 24 years old. I had a good surfer friend, and he took me to many beaches.
ct: Flipping through all your books, you have such wonderful pictures of so many influential people.
rt: That’s just my local thing.
ct: Stanley Mouse.
rt: Stanley, I knew him, he was living in San Francisco. I knew him through the Dead Heads, you know, the Grateful Dead? I was a Dead Head and they introduced me to so many famous people—Stanley Mouse, and so many hippie guys living in Marin County.
ct: And it looks like you’ve met Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. You photographed him.
rt: He’s a pack rat too. I’ve been to his house in Beverly Hills—big house, no family, but so many vintage things. He is maybe one of the best pack rats. He always played so many cities, and before a show, he’d stop by local shops. Every shop I like, he’d been there already. I respect Billy Gibbons, he has a good eye for great stuff.
ct: Did you get a lot of good stuff from him?
rt: I actually never took photos of his collection, but he had lots of nice stuff. I would like to see more.
ct: Do you consult for any fashion companies?
rt: No, many fashion companies ask me, but I’m just a media guy. I don’t want to go inside the fashion business. I would like to just be neutral, so I’ve never worked for a fashion business.
ct: Are you working on anything now?
rt: In 2010, I started doing the Inspiration show. It’s a gathering of my friends. My friends are called Freedamn Heads. About 3,000 people gather at one place and they’re just drinking and partying. Big parties.
ct: And do people bring their own stuff?
rt: Yeah, it’s more of a trade show, trading old stuff. 3,000 people come with their vintage.
ct: Very cool. Is there any specific kind of category that you’re looking to get involved in down the road?
rt: I love any vintage stuff, and old American stuff. For example, I’m collecting so many guitars. I love guitar collecting, and I love furniture. I don’t want to collect automobiles, because you need space.
rt: I hate that. You see, I had many cars, and it was a problem. I just love anything vintage. I just got a vintage house, too. My house is from 1954, by Cliff May, a famous Californian designer. My life is everything vintage. I don’t buy new stuff, just milk and ice cream.■