Meet Giant Robot's Eric Nakamura: Connecting with people through art

LESA GRIFFITH Honolulu Academy

In 1994, Eric Nakamura was a cool 24-year-old Japanese-American punk skater in LA into art and film. There wasn’t a publication that spoke to him and his interests, so he started his own. It was a zine calledGiant Robot. (It was a golden age of zines and upstart magazines—the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal launched in 1993, and Vice was born in 1996.) With the publishing landscape drying up, Nakamura printed his final issue in 2011, but by that time he also oversaw Giant Robot stores and the GR2 art gallery, and the name is as influential as ever in the realm of hip design that skews kawaii. In fact, Giant Robot—the store—is often cited as the birthplace for Asian pop culture products and Uglydolls.

The museum’s summer art event Contempo #ArtShop, happening now through June 28, focuses on an incredible exhibition (in which the art is for sale) that spans from Madge Tennent to Jane Hammond, Ryan Higa to Nathan Oliveira. And amidst the panoply of art is a section dedicated to GR2 artists. For 12 years Nakamura has sought out and nurtured young artists, many (but not all) of them Asian American. He has a stable of painters, draftsmen, and sculptors who have hardcore followers within this toy- and doll-filled world. Names like Katsuya Terada, Luke Chueh, David Choe, Mari Inukai, Deth P Sun, Rob Sato, Ako Castuera, Sean Chao, Yoskay Yamamoto, Uglydoll. Nakamura puts on exhibitions that draw fans from all over and sell out. Those established names allow him to give unknowns a chance—he likes taking the risk on new discoveries. These younger artists have digital nation passports, with huge followings on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Having Giant Robot/GR2 participate in #ArtShop has brought a flood of social media engagement to the museum locally and nationally.

In town for #ArtShop’s Giant Robot Day this past Saturday were Luke Chueh, Ako Castuera, Rob Sato, and Yoskay Yamamoto. Nakamura was there to chat with Giant Robot fans. Even on a busy day like that he took a good half hour to talk with the museum’s Brady Evans, who is also a talented manga-influenced artist who has two works in the #ArtShop exhibition. For a good half hour Nakamura looked over work that Evans had with him (he said, “That’s awesome” more than once) and when they had gone through that the Giant Robot honcho asked to see more, and Brady showed him work on his iPhone. After all these years Nakamura still excited about seeing new work, and offered Evans words of guidance and encouragement.

Nakamura answered three questions about being part of #ArtShop and how he selected works for the exhibition.

What spurred you to participate in #ArtShop?
I got asked, but overall, Hawai‘i has a strange connection in the life of an Asian American. Growing up on the mainland, we’re subject to many things that don’t happen there— or at least that’s the stories we always hear. The people, the food, and the lifestyles are familiar—as if they’re parts of my own world—yet Hawai‘i is still a chain of islands in the Pacific. Being able to connect with people there through art is an opportunity to bring what I hope will be something similarly familiar to Hawai‘i.

Does Giant Robot have a built-in fan base in Honolulu?
That’s a great question. I’ve heard emphatically “yes.” Although I’ve been to Hawai‘i numerous times, including as a judge for HIFF, we’ve never tested or worked with our fan base. I’m sure many in Hawai‘i grew up with Giant Robot Magazine, which is an interesting and unsettling feeling. At times, I feel like a local although I’m far from it. Some of the things I grew up with in Los Angeles happen to be very similar although different to what was happening in Hawaii.

How did you select the artists who are participating?

I had to go with my own feelings about who would be a great match for this project. It’s somewhat of a microcosm of a larger exhibition, which means I chose to work with some folks who are part of the culture of Giant Robot.

Spalding House director Aaron Padilla with the GR2 artists last Friday. From left: Ako Castuera, Rob Sato, Aaron Padilla, Yoskay Yamamoto, Eric Nakamura, and Luke Chueh.

GR2 artist Rob Sato painting live at #ArtShop June 20

GR2 artist Yoskay Yamamoto and island artist Matt Ortiz collaborated on this painting during Giant Robot Day, June 20. The work is now up for auction. Visit Spalding House now through June 28 to make a bid.

See the GR2 pop-up gallery through June 28! Admission to Spalding House is free through June 30.