Rin Tanaka was 12 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 15 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 21 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. 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.
We recently caught up over the phone, he at his Long Beach home, me in Malibu. I’ve been to his house. It’s a treasure trove of Americana—part art gallery, part vintage store, and part movie set. He serves a mean cup of iced green tea.
What era of surf culture most fascinates you?
I like the ‘50s/‘60s surf culture from Southern California. It’s very innovative. In 1940s/1950s surfboards were made by balsa, very heavy wood boards. And maybe late ‘50s is the new foam board. And this is the time of Dale Velzy (shaper, surf industry pioneer). I like the Dale Velzy style. This is my favorite. I moved from Japan to San Clemente in 1998. I wanted to meet Dale Velzy.
How do you go about finding all your great collectibles?
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 every day! But also swap meets, vintage shops, eBay.
When did you first find out about Birdwell?
1990s in Japan. In 1990s Endless Summer II came out—longboard surfing came back around 1994 or 5. So many longboards. 1990s Donald Takayama was big, and I bought a Takayama board. And when I went to many surf shops in Japan in the 1990s I could see Birdwell. Birdwell is more classic – more 1960s style.
Are Birdwells popular in Japan?
In 1990s Birdwells became big popular in Japan—because of the longboard movement. But I think they were there before that.
You’re doing some work with Birdwell in the US?
Yes, I’m making the archive for Birdwell. My business is making the archive for old American companies, because United States is getting old right now, and many companies have a history.
You moved to the US in the late ‘90s. Was it what you expected?
More fun than I expected. 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. I respect American crazy culture. Beyond the limited. Abstract. Beyond the standard.
What is your favorite thing to collect?
Amplifiers. This is my big passion. I love speakers!