When Eric Nakamura was 24 years old, he started a print ‘zine called Giant Robot; the point of it was to speak to all of his interests and experiences that he couldn’t find elsewhere in the world. Whether that meant Asian-American culture, punk music, or art, Giant Robot somehow seamlessly bridged these subcultures and ended up creating its own unique platform in the process. Two decades later, whether or not he wants to claim it, Eric is responsible for his own culture – one that is appreciative and participatory in all things cool and niche, albeit from the Giant Robot perspective.
I grew up on Giant Robot magazine. Beyond the Asian-American directive, it was the intersection of all my favorite subcultures that fascinated me. As a college student and just starting out as a writer, Giant Robot was the first real magazine that gave me a chance. And when we started The Hundreds, Eric was gracious enough to be one of our first interviews for The Hundreds Chronicles.
Today, Eric is 44 years old. This Saturday, Giant Robot celebrates its 20th Anniversary at GR2 (of which we saved a few of our James Jean collaboration skateboard decks to display and sell!). In the years since GR’s start as a Kinko’d photocopied ‘zine, the magazine exploded, ushered in a new identity for Asian-American culture, shaped underground music, impacted Asian post-pop art influence, and eventually faded out as immediately as it had sprung. For the first time in 10 years, I once again sit down with Eric in a candid interview to talk about what he learned from the magazine’s upsetting introduction to final bow, how important GR’s retail locations were to its legacy, and how life looks outside of – and beyond – Giant Robot…
Bobby: OK I have so many questions then. You ready?
Eric: I’m ready.
These are things you’ve probably answered, but–
Nobody interviews me anymore. They interview YOU.
They don’t even interview me! Nobody interviews anyone anymore. How about that? Like “What are you gonna do with that interview,” right? Just put it up on a website and it’s gonna disappear?
So back when you started Giant Robot, what was the void that you were seeing that needed to be filled?
Okay–so that void for me was seeing other Asian magazines or Asian American magazines that say stuff like “Magazine for Asian America” and me looking through the whole magazine, every page, and saying, “No...” I’m not part of that group. How dare they say it’s for me–or I’m part of that, and just group me in like that. I think that’s what started it. I was like, “That’s all wrong.” And I did actually hit up these magazines to write for them and a lot of them rejected my interests or they weren’t interested in it. So then I just started a ‘zine and tried to fill in that void for at least myself. That was really it.
Is it safe to say that you basically created a platform for this type of Asian pop culture to exist? Because I can’t think of it really having a stage before you entered and I can’t think of anyone else who’s kind of replicated it since.
I only saw bits and pieces. There was an Asian film cult magazine, Cult Asian Films, or something like that. They were good at just that, but then anything else–no. They weren’t interested in skateboarding… It was only film geeks, right? So, no, for me, I was interested in a lot of different things, so I guess that’s why we just made it.
I had nothing to copy, so it was purely out of self–like, just motivated by my own interests and self. Kind of just self-starting it and doing it and not really copying anything. I wasn’t jumping off someone else’s project. I was just kind of mad, I think. So I kind of did that out of anger. I hate to say it–that’s how some people get stuff going. It’s when you see something that makes you mad then you act, right? And then you kind of make a reactionary product. So I guess it’s still kind of reactionary.
I was gonna say, “Are you still mad?”
No, I was only mad ‘til like that first issue came out.
I think you were responding, right?
Yeah, and I was just thinking how it was odd that some group of people from wherever they were would just say something like, “This is for Asian America. This is for ALL of Asian America,” and it’s like, “Dude, you’re crazy.” You have to be high to do that. It just sounds like you’re just taking on way too much without researching enough and that to me is really dangerous. I think we wrote “The Magazine for You” on it, so it didn’t matter.
Oh, was that the tagline?
I think we used to. That’s what we did towards the end. It was just one of those things where you can’t just say, “Hey, this is for an entire group of people.” And in the beginning, Asian Americans didn’t even read Giant Robot, it was more for punk rock kids and… It was non-Asians reading it in the first place. That was the majority. Those people that go to Rhino Records. There were no Asians buying records there.
It basically was like “the magazine for Eric.” How do you feel like it stands today? Or how do you feel about that today? Do you still feel the same about all this stuff? Are you still passionate?
Yeah, there’s certain aspects that I like a lot, that I think are just as interesting. But at the same time, we all change a bit so I’m less interested in like the, uh… I don’t know... I still like toy figures, but I kind of like the evolution of what they all became.
Which is what?
A lot of it’s the designer figure stuff. Which then all of a sudden crashed out a bit and now it’s like a rebirth of smaller, cheaper toys.
Yeah, right, right.
There’s a lot of people self-producing items now or their own figures and stuff. They no longer need these factories in Japan. They’re actually making it at home. They’re self-casting things and that’s kind of neat to see. And these are all things that came out of Hong Kong–Michael Lau and Medicom, all those things that were just really launching off in the late ‘90s. Seeing it today, it’s like this weird super indie post-atomic bomb version where that stuff got too hard to do so everyone found this cheaper way. And then they’re actually producing it themselves and charging less.
Because that stuff was actually pricey. In the late ‘90s, things were like $100, $150 for a figure. And then even just a few years ago, they were kind of the same, and then all that kind of crashed and now it’s a rebirth of this indie thing. I follow all of that stuff. And I follow streetwear the same way, just from the far sidelines. But my own interests are kind of like studies, you know? Just personally. So I’m always looking at things and looking at how things are cresting and changing. What I thought was the most incredible thing five years ago is now unimportant to me, and I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. That we were kind of reading too much media, you know what I mean?
We were reading too much of one website and then we actually believed in things and drank this Kool-Aid of belief of all these things and five years later it’s all gone. It’s like, “Where did it all go?”
Do you have an example of that?
A lot, man. I was reading too much Hypebeast, I think. And I loved it. I was even writing for them...
Oh, were you?
Yeah, you were writing for it, too. It was the same time!
Yeah, oh, that’s right. For the blogs.
It was the same time. But I think I was reading so much of like these influential people and tastemakers and I thought they were gonna take over the world. I believed it! Then I realized, “...Not really.” Like maybe they’ll do good for themselves personally, but I don’t think their tastes are gonna really change everything. A few will, but not as much as I thought. I thought it was really gonna sweep everything. And maybe those people can argue that they did. It doesn’t seem important to me anymore. Like what they’re doing at this moment I’m not even paying attention to. And I feel like everyone I knew that was paying attention to that five years ago are no longer either.
What are you into today that lives outside of this bubble? Outside of the Giant Robot bubble, ‘cause I have a lot of stuff like that. Like half of my life now is stuff that I can’t figure out how to incorporate into The Hundreds, so I just don’t. Which is like, whatever, my family life or surfing or–there’s a lot of things that, as I’ve grown up, I’m like, “This is what I really love!” For example, reading. I’m reading literature more than ever, but it doesn’t really fall into The Hundreds. And it’s hard. It’s hard because The Hundreds is supposed to be everything that I am and that I do but I also realize that my audience won’t take to it. I just know.
So okay, that’s a great thing to bring up because the last eight issues of Giant Robot, it was a huge change where I was feeling like, “Okay, this isn’t what people really want, and our audience that’s new won’t want what we’re doing.” I felt that and I felt like, “God, it’s because we’re 40-years-old now.” And then I realized, well, all the things I’m interested in shouldn’t necessarily go into Giant Robot, and if they do, that’s gonna create a big problem. Like, I don’t think that’s good. I didn’t feel good about it at all.
So yeah, I personally just had to self-edit and really concentrate on looking at things. Making my things of study that are interesting–I can put in the magazine. But there’s a whole bunch of personal things like, “Do air plants really make it into Giant Robot?” I love air plants, you know? I’m pretty good at taking care of air plants. I’m better than most people, I think. But at the same time, does that make it in? No. I don’t have kids, so I wouldn’t put my kids in Giant Robot.
But I still like the field of study of what’s going on. I love seeing the fact that there’s young artists that are doing stuff that’s like, “Wow, 3 years ago that would’ve been impossible. That couldn’t have been done.” Making figures and toys that look professional. Because I remember a few years ago people were making things themselves and it looked like shit. Now they’re making it so well that I’m like, “Is this from a factory, or did you do this?” They’re doing it themselves and good. It’s just getting going so people are like, “But you can’t make a living off it.” I’m like, “Not yet, fool!” You’re on the way to becoming a factory if you wanted to. And it’s all domestic and local and small runs. I just love studying that kind of stuff and seeing artist trends and seeing what kind of art goes up and down. The artists that were big way back. Some of them, I don’t know what they’re doing anymore (laughs).
But the artists that were doing punk rock–like Raymond Pettibon–yeah, awesome. But there’s that whole silkscreen group that were doing rad silkscreens of punk rock posters. I don’t know where those guys went and that was like 15, 20 years ago.
Was art always a big focus for Giant Robot, even back then? It wasn’t that much, right? Why did that happen?
It was just one of those things. Growing up, I thought art was Van Gogh and Picasso. That was art, growing up. And then over time it was like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. Two things where I was like, these guys are relatively young Japanese dudes making art that’s kind of based on their interests and upbringing. Animation, robots, you know? Stuff like that. And then they created art and it worked.
But then, what I thought was interesting was... not just art–it was okay to make products, T-shirts, anything. They made all these different products. And I know a lot of artists here at the time weren’t quite diversifying themselves. They were doing art and then saying, “Well, art’s not selling, I’m fucked,” you know? But these guys were saying, “You’re not buying my art? I’m gonna make books, T-shirts, every little product,” and that was 15 years ago. And they were making a living.
And then I realized that a lot of American artists that I work with, over time, all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, now you’re making shirts?” Skate decks, they had all kinds of shit. Really early. They were diversifying their merchandise line.
Isn’t it more or less taboo to have so much commerce coincide with art?
Nara is now moving away from having commerce and products. It kind of swings away from it too, but then everyone caught up to that whole idea. Every artist makes products so the biggest artists are like “No, no products.” Their art has probably taken care of enough for themselves. They make books, but then making little objects? It seems like a lot of artists have gotten away from that too.
Yeah, even Kaws...
Do Murakami and Nara attribute any of their success, especially here in the States, to what you did for them...?
Oh, dude, we had them on the cover early. Like 2001, I think? I don’t know if they’ll do that. Somebody, maybe! An academic might say it, maybe someone who studies that kind of stuff. But I don’t know, we don’t talk about those things. Like if I see Murakami, it’s more joy, he’s not like, “EY, BECAUSE OF YOU!” (laughs). No, I always just say the artists do it themselves in any way. Good art will transcend whether we put it on the cover or not. Those guys are amazing.
How important was it for you to open the Giant Robot store here?
Oh! That was really important, because making a magazine doesn’t really pay, so we had to find a way to survive. Yeah, 2001...
It was the same, like, a week before 9/11?
It was like this really odd time where we opened and then that happens and it’s like “OH, should we just close?” But it was fine, actually. We did alright, but yeah it was right at 9/11. I think it was something like August 25th. It was one of those things where we had to do something, because literally it was mail order or Internet orders and you know at that time, no one was buying anything on Amazon yet. So it was like this time when all that was happening and it was all very busy. It was before our economy crashed. A lot of people who read this won’t even know. They’ll be like, “It crashed?! I thought that’s how it always was!” It was a whole different thing before 2006.
The numbers were insane compared to now it’s like whoa, it’s like–
Yesterday or two days ago, CNN posted this front page article about how even retail is plummeting. Walmart is closing hundreds of stores...
Staples is gonna close, what, 250 stores?
Something like that, yeah.
Retail is difficult. And it’s never rebounded back from 2007, 2006. It hasn’t rebounded back and here it is, 8 years later. There were promises that it was gonna be back, better the next year. I remember 2007, 2008 everyone kept saying, “the next year.” Here it is, 2014, and no, it’s not back. It’s not even close.
So what are you doing to cope with that?
I can’t control the entire game, right? I can only control what we do, so we just have to be more innovative, move faster, just do anything we can to survive. In the past, you’d think, “It’s gonna come back around, why change anything?” It doesn’t work. You really have to go with whatever’s out there. Like Amazon not really making money but they’re trying to undercut everybody. Even eBay is doing the same. Like there’s some fool on eBay selling my stuff for less than barely more than I buy it for. How do they do it? It’s rough, so you have to keep playing those kinds of games and keep alert of everything. That’s really all, I mean, in the end. But it’s tough.
Talk about why you moved to Sawtelle and what Sawtelle has become.
I’ve been in this neighborhood my whole life. My grandma used to live five blocks down. My mom and dad actually met literally on the street. So this street has been part of our family, but I lived a couple miles away, but for 14 years I was living 5 blocks away. It’s just a neighborhood that really feels like home to me.
We had a shop in New York and I closed it. San Francisco, too, closed it. Which I’m glad, at this point, it was getting to a point where–I couldn’t. Those neighborhoods changed, but at the same time, it was just this hectic life trying to run retail everywhere, as you know. It’s not as bad here in LA when I’m actually nearby. I’m like okay, there’s a pattern there, why is it difficult in other cities, but not where I’m closest to? It was better to close–and sometimes you do better by doing that. It’s really weird. It sounds counter-, but it’s that whole thing. I thought it was important for me to have these shops. Technically, it was supposed to be all over the world. I was looking at Chicago and literally Tokyo. I was on the run to try to do it. We did New York and San Francisco in like 2 years. I just thought it was really important for me at the time, then realized, it was kind of not (laughs). It was my own ego, I think, that I really needed to do it.
How old were you when you realized this? 10 years ago?
It was 40s (laughs).
Oh, really recently.
(laughs) It took me a little too long to realize there’s maybe an infinite bigger life than my work. My work, I thought, was everything, right? That was 100% of my life. I was like, “I’m happy,” at the time. Then, once you let go of some things, I was like, “Ohh, look at all this other stuff that I didn’t even get into as a result.” There’s a big difference. But then those things make me even happier. Collecting shells at the beach is a cool thing. You probably like surfing, but I don’t surf.
But it’s the same thing.
It’s just this thing that’s like—
It makes NO money. It doesn’t contribute to your brand or to your business in any way. It’s a complete waste of time, but it brings you so much happiness.
That to me is important. It took me a long time. Like literally, I learned it just recently (laughs).
Well at least you learned it, because some people never learn it! They live their whole life–
(laughs) But then it’s hard to explain that to a 25-year-old kid.
Totally. You can not explain that. Because they’re blind with passion, anger, or whatever...
I’ve tried to explain it to people and no one will ever get it, so I just decided I can’t explain it and that’s okay. Everyone will hopefully get there and be happy.
So tell me, what’s going on on Saturday?
We’re gonna do an exhibition, I think I contacted almost every artist that did art covers for us and almost all of them are like–
A lot of them, yeah! I was kind of surprised, because even the biggest... Murakami, even, said yeah, and Nara is doing stuff. Even with the show, I didn’t realize until a few months ago that we should do this. I’m not really a “good old days” guy–maybe they’re all good old days, but I don’t wanna be like looking at one point saying, “This was the best.” I think it’s all about now and tomorrow for me, and I’m really happy about that. Whether tomorrow is a bigger economic crash, I’m up for that. It’s okay. I wanna face that, so I’m up for whatever’s tomorrow and hopefully those will be the good days or will be just as good or better.
I’m good with it, I’m happy with it.