Rin Tanaka’s obsession with vintage Americana made him up sticks from Japan and move to the west coast of California to follow the surf and the selvedge. Beginning his career as a music journalist and then a photographer, Rin’s compulsion to collect, catalogue and document different aspects of American culture led him to self-publish his own series of books. These books are now effectively a definitive reference source for anyone interested in the history of performance manufacture.
His first My Freedamn book sold 15,000 copies, a remarkable amount for a first time self publisher. The My Freedamn series of books delve deep into US subcultural scenes from Surf to Skate to Biker or Hippy culture. From West coast to East coast and everything in between with Rock n’ roll joining the dots and being the link that holds the fabric of the American spirit together.
They are the definitive tomes of US subculture and product, covering everything from t-shirts to motorbike helmets meticulously, with an obsession and details second to none. They are the go-to-books for the likes of Ralph Lauren and they inspire many a designer with even the vaguest interest in Americana.
We discussed these matters with Rin who as an outsider perhaps has a unique take on what makes US culture so great. My friend Antony Crook and I met him at his lock up/office/home just by the sea in San Clemente on the southern Cali coast. His place was filled to the brim with all the things he so clearly loves, mounds of garments, records, posters and memorabilia – a real trove of treasures.
Rin had been out till late the night before on a job photographing the Japanese garage band ‘Guitar Wolf ‘ who were touring the US. When we arrived, in true Rock n’Roll style Rin was catching 40 winks. With Ella Fitzgerald playing on an old Jazz 45, we sat, chatted and drank green tea.
Glenn Kitson – So what brought you to the States?
Rin Tanaka – Originally I studied to be a musician. I came over to the States and stayed in Mississippi, Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago to study Rock n’Roll. I came to learn the guitar but Japanese people love cameras and I took one everywhere I went. And with me being around musicians such as BB King I became a photographer and a music journalist. I would send my photos to an editor in Japan and he would send me back cheques!
Glenn – what brought you to San Clemente?
Rin – Good waves! It is a very famous city for surfing. I came here first on vacation with my wife, to surf and take in the culture. We came back a few times and then eventually settled.
Glenn – So what drove you to create My Freedamn?
Rin – My philosophy is very Rock n’Roll but using ‘another’ subject and I have loved vintage clothing since being a kid. It goes hand in hand with the music and Rock n’Roll music comes from the United States so it was natural for me to fall in love with Americana. I love the British style too but it is Americana that really captures my imagination.
Glenn – It seems to be a characteristically Japanese thing to tap into Americana?
Rin – It is quite simple. After WWII the American GI’s were based for many years in Japan. For instance, in my home town Yokohama there was a huge American military station so I grew up watching American people from a very young age. Yokohama had a lot of foreigners living there, in particular Americans and I remember being very impressed by the American cars. I also remember the fashion too.
This is the reason why Japanese people are interested in Americana, after WWII we saw them as our new ‘brothers’. In reality, American and Japanese culture is quite opposite. The Japanese are more quiet!
Glenn – Did you have an expectation of what the US was like before you arrived and did it match that expectation?
Rin – It was as expected. The United States is a big country and there are many people from many different countries who arrive here and begin to speak English and add to the culture whilst becoming Americanised. It is the American way and I did expect to see this. Yes, it has matched my expectations.
Of course, there are problems and these last few years we have felt the effects of the economy. In the past the economy was booming and now there seems to be less money around and yet the US population still grows. People got greedy. I didn’t expect these problems when I moved here, in fact I expected an easier way of life and an easy way to earn and make a living. At first I did but this is now going up, and I don’t really need too much!
Glenn – Did you always have a desire or an ambition to self publish books?
Rin – I was originally working with a publishing house but they didn’t really understand what I wanted to achieve so I had no choice but to publish myself. Fortunately, right from the beginning I have had good people around me such as my friends at a Japanese printing company who needed a job, demand for print has decreased these last few years.
Glenn – There’s still a great need for print even though much of our information comes from the Internet these days.
Rin – That’s right but nothing beats print.
Glenn – Did you come across any difficulties when you started?
Rin – You need lots of time! The quote is – ‘Ignore everything, except that you’re right’. It is the artist’s way. I don’t really care about financial things; I only care about my passions.
Glenn – And where does knowledge fit into this? The knowledge of the product and how things are crafted, did you study it or did it develop naturally?
Rin – You know, research is like a puzzle game with so many pieces and at first I chose easy puzzles with not too many pieces and then after a while I chose harder things to research. Knowledge comes through time, patience and passion. Passion is a big thing as it drives us. You don’t really need technique if you have passion. The consumer needs passion from any artist as they spend money for passion. I still study everyday; I read so many books. I buy 20 books every month. At the moment I am studying Californian style ranch houses, their architecture, history and design.
Glenn – So this goes hand in hand with the clothing and culture?
Rin – Yes of course. Artistic people have shared the same philosophy over the years and that is, how can we create new things? How can we make more stuff?
Glenn – You must know many vintage dealers to source the products for your books. But do you source any of it yourself?
Rin – If you spend your time in your passion and obsess over a particular subject then you tend to find your own sort of people. We attract each other with the same energy. As with the product we shoot, we come across it.
Glenn – How many books have you published now?
Rin – 21 books in total.
Glenn – You’re very prolific in your output, do you ever worry that you are going to run out of subject matter to document?
Rin – I am curious in anything that I term ‘Rock n Roll,’ so to answer your question, no I am not worried. As long as there is ‘Rock n Roll’ then I will find product to shoot and document. There is always something.
Glenn – Before starting a book do you know what the focus is to be or does the book develop organically? Does technology play a part?
Rin – Well I shoot on film and the way I develop it is put the rolls into boxes and once one of the boxes is filled and then developed I start to make the book. So for example, when I visit collectors houses I shoot a lot of stuff, maybe 50 or 60 pieces then if I see a theme then I will hire out other products.
Glenn – There are a lot of historical elements too? I know fashion and history go hand in hand but you cover a lot of cultural history in your books as well?
Rin – Well that is for the next generation and my job is to rediscover the past. I hope the young people read my book and think it looks nice and is useful.
Glenn – Of all the cultural history you have documented what has been your favourite?
Rin – Biker clothing, especially leather jackets.
Glenn – And any particular era?
Rin – The late 30s, the reason being because this was actually the real birth of American culture that would develop in the 50s. The Wild Ones, teenage rebellion and so on were already starting before WWII but the war stopped it temporarily as everyone was drafted into the army. After five years everyone came back and it began to develop but maybe if it hadn’t have been for the war then maybe ‘Rock n Roll’ would have started even earlier. Its origin was in the 30s and if you look closely the elements were there. I love American culture from the late 30s to the early 40s; it is the best time for me.
The saying goes that the past is a foreign country. In Rin Tanaka’s case that’s literally true. Despite his Japanese roots he has become the foremost authority on American culture and he’s living proof that a passion bordering on obsession is often what drives things forward.
His desire to document the products of the past helps push things forward in the modern day. Many of the things he photographs were once state of the art and at the height of performance manufacture and this is what makes them so timeless. Without the drive and eye for detail of people like Rin, perhaps the future would be a foreign country too?