Eric Nakamura is one of those people who will talk to anyone. He’s extremely approachable, extremely nice, and extremely talented. He can do just about anything too, from running a successful store to a popular magazine to an art gallery–all while handling every tiny detail in between from taxes to maintenance. He is the man behind Giant Robot, the Little Osaka based store, magazine, art gallery, and destination for Asian and Asian American popular culture and art, a Los Angeles institution that he has started nearly twenty years ago.
We sat in GR2, Giant Robot’s hybrid store and gallery space (which had their Year Of The Dragon show on view), located on Sawtelle Blvd, an area Nakamura has called home his entire life. “That kind of makes a lot of sense why I am still here,” he says, referring to both his GR1 and GR2 both being so close together and in his “hometown,” just feet from each other. “I actually really like it here a lot.”
He went to elementary and middle school in the area as well, attending Japanese language school after his regular school day ended. He didn’t have much time to hang out in his hustle from one school to another but he was exposed to a lot. “It was kind of cool. I think I learned a lot more that way,” he said.
High school saw him head a little further Northwest, to the Pacific Palisades. When school finished, he still didn’t land too far: just a hop South to Santa Monica Community College. “That’s kind of where I started doing photography and really started learning. That’s where I grew up more, humbled because I didn’t get into universities,” he explained. While attending school in Santa Monica, he was also working with the Palisades Post as their (only) photographer. He was responsible for shooting stories, processing photos, writing stories, and everything else associated with being a journalist. “I was the only photographer there. It was a really awesome job. It wasn’t easy but that’s where I learned what journalism was.”
He eventually transferred to UCLA, where he studied East Asia Studies. “My world opened up even more to things, although everything was mostly historical,” he said, mentioning various areas he studied in school. Upon graduating, he was still in Los Angeles: he worked for Larry Flynt’s video game magazine, VideoGames & Computer Entertainment, and went on to start Giant Robot not too long after.
“Giant Robot started in 1994, as a zine,” he said. “It was a really rough, photocopied publication. And, little by little, we grew it from there, eventually becoming a mass market magazine. It was focused on Asian pop culture but, eventually, it was less pop culture and more art. That’s what led to our opening a shop and then opening up a gallery space like this.”
Giant Robot having a space for art is a far cry for what typical Los Angeles used to be, which was previously not as art enriched or culturally exciting. Eric has watched the city changed and is a huge part of shifting the art culture in the city. “In 2002, art shows were mostly still in galleries. It wasn’t something people wanted to go to. 2002 it was completely getting started,” he explained. “One of the only things that existed was Wacko. They did art shows but even that was different. It was what Juxtapoz used to be.”
“The very first [Giant Robot] art show was a David Choe show,” he explained. “It was packed, right off the bat. That night, there were hundreds of people here. The neighborhood was so crowded. Now, on any given Saturday, it’s like four art shows a night. That didn’t exist then. There was no going to a “second art show” after. This was the only one. People would come here and hang out all night.”
Nakamura recalls seeing this change happening around 2004 and 2005, when lots of not-high-art based galleries started popping up inside of stores already running, using a similar model to Giant Robot. “There was a time when there were more of these shop/galleries and now its mainly just galleries. They still exist all over Los Angeles and there are scenes starting in other cities–we even had one in San Francisco and New York, with art shows every month.”
Eric sees the scene just having grown up, graduating from hybrids of stores and art spaces to full on art spaces. The artists he finds changed too, becoming focused on younger topics and dipping into commercial enterprises. He sees Murakami’s 2001 Superflat show at MOCA Pacific Design Center as a big catalyst for this, too.
“It put art into a place where people looked at it and went, ‘I can do this, too. I can make art influenced by comics, by cartoons,’” Eric said. “That was something that really impacted people. They also made a lot of products too. Art and products used to be separated. You just made art. But, people started realize that if I make art, I can sell it. But, if I make products, I can make a living.”
Giant Robot had to change as result as well, shifting gears and becoming more focused on art. This is part of the game to Eric, though: a modern person should be able to do everything. “That’s kind of our world today. You have to do a little bit of everything. Almost everyone who is working in general needs to know a little bit of graphic design, you need to know a little bit of photography–it’s getting to the point where you’ll need to know a little bit of Final Cut or at least iMovie to cut video. Everyone is going to have to do this. You can’t just be like ‘I’m only going to do photography.’”
And, even though a lot can be learned independently, he stresses education and the importance of craft. “Writing is still a little bit of a craft,” he says. “There’s a difference between someone who is schooled and someone who is not. Over time, you can get better and better at anything. People are starting to do a lot of little things: everyone is becoming a bit of an everyman. Who is going to do your invoicing when you freelance? Everyone is going to have to learn how to do that. You can’t just say, ‘Hey. I’m computer illiterate. Here’s a receipt.’ Our world is changing for us to have to do a lot of little things. For me, yes, I opened a shop but I have to know how to put up art and even know construction. I actually learned how to build a wall. I learned that because I had to.”
“There’s this thing of being a ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None,’” he says with a smile. “I think that’s finally becoming valuable. For a long time, I always felt like I wasn’t an expert in anything: I can write alright, I can take pictures alright–I could do all these different things. But, I think it’s finally all coming together where I can circumvent a lot of problems by doing things myself.”
He finds that this ability to do everything is very Los Angeles and is a result of the sprawl. “LA is what I know the most. I’m sure maybe New York is the same way but I think it all comes from the city being so spread out,” he says. “Maybe because its harder to get things from further away. So, you just learn to do it your own way.”
This new way of functioning is very exciting and really is putting people in control of their work and lives. It’s very exciting and, in a lot of ways, can be extended to the Los Angeles art scene. “The art scene in LA is so different than New York. The way New York operates and the way LA operates in art are two different things,” he says. “LA’s art scene, talking about that scene only, has got to be one of the most exciting and newest, hottest places in the world. For America, LA has to be the best or at least the most interesting city for art–especially within the genre that we’re in. I don’t think in history there has been a renaissance like this. Maybe in thirty years they’ll be studying what was happening in LA in 2010. There are legends already made here.”
And this isn’t just “street art” or similar territories: there is so much more than that to Los Angeles art. “Graffiti has a really huge bravado that is really powerful and strong–but the people who make art here are people who grew up in bedrooms with sketchbooks and notebooks watching cartoons. It’s a different influence. It’s a whole different scene. It’s more the shy kid, not the one promoting himself. They’re the ones not showing their work. They’re hiding.”
Thankfully, these shy kids who are pursuing art leisurely are getting noticed thanks to the Internet and the ability to share work so much easier. Eric’s can echo this completely, his work being the result of pursuing something he was passionate about in his spare time. “It all started as a hobby,” he said. “I didn’t really think of it as anything else. There was no big plan. Everything was organic. We moved as we felt like we needed to move. Even remodeling here just happened. I just go with whatever I feel.”
Eric doesn’t see himself leaving his hometown either, the rare breed of Angeleno who was born here and will stay here as long as he can. “I would be in Tokyo without a doubt, though. I would love to do that,” he clarifies. “I’m an LA person but I would love to even spend a year in Tokyo. I think that’d even be good enough. Just a little bit would be okay–but you never know. It’s one of those things you don’t plan on. If you told me another city in America? No. There’s no other city I would move to.”
For more on Eric, give him a follow on Twitter. For more on Giant Robot, check out Giant Robot’s website, follow them on Twitter, and give them a Like on Facebook. They currently have They Are Us up at GR2, which opened this past weekend and will but up until May 2.