Eric Nakamura is the man behind the Robot — in particular, the fantastic pop-culture empire known as Giant Robot. In 1994, the West L.A. writer-publisher debuted Giant Robot, a bimonthly fanzine that was ostensibly about Asian pop culture but also covered punk rock, art, film, videogames, toys and food from numerous scenes and cultures. “We’re interested in all these things, from Hello Kitty to Bad Brains,” Nakamura says in a phone interview.
Along with longtime co-editor Martin Wong, Nakamura shepherded Giant Robot from its simple beginning as a photocopied zine through its evolution into a vibrant and influential publication that was among the first national magazines to embrace both nerd-geek culture and the punk-rock underground. Giant Robot captured the era’s zeitgeist so perfectly that it eventually expanded into a series of related retail stores and galleries in New York, San Francisco and Silver Lake, as well as a restaurant, gr/eats, that had a six-year run in the Sawtelle neighborhood of West L.A. “That was a tough project,” Nakamura admits about gr/eats, which he feels might have been too ahead of its time. “I wouldn’t suggest that to anyone.”
By 2010, a changing economy led to the closure of most of the stores and galleries, and the magazine stopped publication in 2011. But the flagship Giant Robot store remains a fixture in West Los Angeles, as does the GR2 Gallery just down the street on Sawtelle Boulevard. “I understand what my space is, its size and location, and what it can do. I’m in a neighborhood filled with restaurants and ramen,” Nakamura says about GR2 Gallery, which occupies a space with about 750 total square feet. “I’m not in a huge, empty warehouse in the middle of nowhere. I have a space that has more traffic than those places. Most of it is really fun. It’s a lot less stress than running a magazine.”
In addition to curating GR2 Gallery’s art exhibitions, Nakamura presents spoken-word readings and a comedy night on the first Thursday of every month. “My space is a community space,” he says. His roots in the neighborhood run deep. Nakamura, 50, lives in Palms and grew up in various places around West Los Angeles, including Sawtelle. His Japanese-American parents met cute in Sawtelle when his mom’s car broke down and was fixed at his dad’s gas station.
Nakamura is in the first year of his second term as an elected board member on the West Los Angeles Sawtelle Neighborhood Council. “It’s a neighborhood council, so it’s not a paid position. I have yet to see any bribes,” he jokes. “It has its ups and downs, but you can do great things for people. We can amplify people’s voices if they need help … Our job is to connect people to city services or just do it ourselves. At times, it’s like that show Parks and Recreation.”
He got his start in the local music scene by taking dramatic photographs of such musicians as Public Enemy, Dwarves, and The Muffs, although Nakamura has so far resisted the temptation to show his work at his own gallery. “I loved shooting bands. It was an excuse for me to be in the pit,” Nakamura says. These days, “I do photos for fun — I just shoot family and friends.” He also designs pins, boba cups and other objects for the Giant Robot store. “I don’t consider myself a designer. I do it for myself. I always say I’m just a hobbyist with a little bit of an outlet … I just do it; I don’t contextualize it.”
One of Nakamura’s greatest projects occurred when Toyota commissioned him to design the Giant Robot Scion Famicar, a driveable (if not entirely street legal) car that was like a mobile videogame console, which was functional and celebrated retro game style with outlandish sound effects and videogame whimsy. More recently, he’s been taking part in the Robot and the Bear podcast, in which he chats about art with painter Luke Chueh.