If I had a hammer, it would probably be sitting outside in the rain. In fact, it is. But I’ll take a certain amount of pleasure tomorrow in coating it with oil and giving the wooden handle a gentle rub with a fine cloth while working across the cheek, face and claw with some steel wool to dispel rust and renew its beautiful and utilitarian form. But there are different strokes for different folks and if Liberace had had a hammer, it would have been sequined and bejeweled and never left outside.
Japanese decotora or “decoration truck” drivers are like a combination of, um, me and Liberace. The drivers use their tools as they are intended—hauling goods, dumping trash and other loads, making deliveries—but also meticulously decorate and over-farkle their otherwise industrial rides into hyper machines reminiscent of anime robots and mechanical warriors à la the Japanese series Gundam.
What began in the fishing villages of northern Japan as a late-1960s answer to the lowrider and hot-rodder crazes that swept the United States, became a national trend after being popularized in the film Torakku Yar¯o(Trucker). Since the movie’s release in the mid-1970s, decotora trucks have been a potent niche in Japan’s highly visual culture and the princess darlings of large-scale vehicle customization, from American monster trucks to Afghan freight convoys and Guatemalan chicken buses. In an increasingly digitized and changing world, the fetish for decotora is giving way to other fixations, and trucks in Japan draw decreasing pools of aficionados to preen and peacock them.
Photographer Masaru Tatsuki has documented this fading breed with a strange and addictive book, Decotora 1998–2007: Japanese Art Truck Scene. Selections of his large- and small-format photographs are currently on view at Tai Gallery. The gallery’s always breathtaking collection of textiles and bamboo works provide unexpectedly pleasant companionship to the contemporary Japanese photography that is also regularly exhibited. There are similar considerations of form and detail, despite the gulf of aesthetic difference and cultural reference points between trucks and woven, sculptural forms.
The decotora trucks are over-the-top in relation to the more-understated beauty exuded in the other works at Tai (curiously, both extremes are Japanese stereotypes). They are covered in additional panels, spoilers and accoutrements in service to the mechanical robot vogue of Gundam or, for Americans, Transformers. The trucks are riddled with lights and custom paintwork, with nearly every surface of the cabs serving as an electric canvas and with trailers often limned in luminescent frames. They are frequently described in the US, quite aptly, as being akin to pinball or slot machines. Certainly the closest frame of aesthetic reference is a casino.
But Tatsuki positions the trucks for portraits in quiet environments, where the lights become pure color, the potential for momentum is calmed and the hulking things become almost singular forms. In one image, a truck sits at a tunnel entrance, surrounded by nothing but concrete and darkness. Its color practically breathes and the lines created through the meticulous placement of lights become almost a formal composition, with curious hints of Robert Irwin or Dan Flavin. In another image, a truck accompanies one of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculptures, compatriots in the fetishism of the iconic art object. Across the room, another truck is juxtaposed with a Chanel logo, almost as sculpturally formed as the Indiana piece, and the photographer’s increasingly complex grid of references begins to emulate the complex decorations of the trucks themselves.
Some choices are, at first, ill-fitting, with the exposures seeming suddenly lazy or less focused: a truck against dark, blossoming trees, its relatively modest lighting made more timid in the sickly light of unseen streetlights. The truck’s owner stands uncomfortably in front of his vehicle. But the photographs exude the most satisfying and bizarre content when Tatsuki turns his lens away from the formal—and sometimes boyish—fixation of the trucks and focuses instead on the drivers. Their expressions range from goofy pride to inscrutable machismo.
In one image, the driver leans across his seats and we see him through the open doorway against a shaft of Candy Apple Metalflake and a backdrop of lovingly luxurious seat fabric. An interior chandelier hangs above him and he focuses his gaze out at the viewer. Looking at it, one becomes the unseen stage-left observer of a perverse odalisque arrangement oriented in another direction.
One man assumes a seated position in the recesses of his cargo compartment, as though he is sitting in a spa, shirtless and sweatbanded. Describing the center of the compartment’s ceiling is a line of varying chandeliers. He exudes the contradiction of the trucker scene, a masculine pomp described in effeminate detail. In his capturing of the driver/artists behind the creation of decotora trucks, Tatsuki becomes an anthropological chronicler, capturing a tribe that is bleakly staring at its own impending disappearance. At the same time, his luminous portraits not only document, but memorialize and glorify the art truck subculture.