The art of the machine


The phenomenal success of MTV’s “Pimp my Ride,” a show in which everyday folk have their unglamorous vehicles jazzed up with chrome wheels, fancy paint jobs and state-of-the-art sound systems, has sparked huge interest in the art and practice of motor-vehicle customization. So it wasn’t long before a show emerged that focused on two-wheeler makeovers. “Biker Build-Off” aired on the Discovery Channel and featured America’s top custom-bike builders competing to create the most impressive ride. Among the contestants were two Japanese builders, Shinya Kimura and Chica.

While Chica builds flashy, ultramodern bikes not dissimilar to the work of popular American customizers, Kimura’s creations are radically different. Some observers have even gone so far as to label them “rolling works of art,” and that is a label this innovative creator is trying to burnish through an exhibition of his work currently on show in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku neighborhood.

American bike customization enthusiasts credit Kimura with originating the now hugely popular grunge look, or retro-classic style of bike-building, using assorted scrap parts from vintage Harley-Davidsons and pre-’60s Triumph and BSA engine components, which he finds at swap meets or junkyards. Also fashioning some parts himself, Kimura spends around four months creating each of his “old-school choppers,” often building almost everything, from the engine to the transmission, and even the wheels, from scratch, using junk metal and salvaged parts.

Kouichiro Narita, editor of Hot Bike Japan, a magazine devoted to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, to which Kimura is an occasional contributor, says that anybody interested in custom bikes in Japan knows the name Shinya Kimura. “Kimura is a legend in the world of motorbike customization,” he says. “He created a new look that nobody had ever seen before, using the old Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi (austere refinement), bringing out the beauty of the raw materials and incorporating the essence of wa (harmony) into his designs. About five years ago it became known here in Japan as ‘Zero Style,’ and it’s still having a big impact on the scene here.”

Kimura, who recalls customizing his bicycle in his youth so that it would stand out from those of other kids, quit his post as chief mechanic at one of Japan’s leading motorcycle manufacturers to set up his own company, Chabott Engineering, in Okazaki City, Aichi Prefecture, in 1992. The following year, he changed the workshop’s name to Zero Engineering and took on a team of five mechanics. Over the past dozen or so years, the firm has produced about 200 motorcycles.

Hot Bike magazine’s Narita says that Kimura’s background as an engine specialist has also been pivotal to his success. “The beauty of Harley-Davidson bikes, especially the older models, is the engine,” he explains. “If you look at the Zero Engineering bikes, you’ll see that they all make the engine a prominent part of their design — that was something that really captured the imagination of Harley fans.”

The no-frills, retro-chic machines that Kimura creates, with their deliberately worn metal surfaces and mostly dark, muted paint work, are a far cry from the gaudy all-chrome or eye-achingly airbrushed custom designs that dominate the American market. They appeal only to a small, highly discerning clientele that includes actors Brad Pitt (who owns three) and George Clooney.

Kimura’s recent application for a green card to work in the United States was submitted along with a letter of recommendation from Pitt, who has struck up a friendship with the unassuming Japanese. Unsurprisingly, the creator’s request for residency was duly granted, and in July this year he set up a new workshop, Chabott Engineering, in Azusa, Calif. He still works as Zero Engineering’s chief designer, with a six-strong team of mechanics in Aichi realizing his visions, but since moving to California he has begun to build alone too. That is part of his drive to gain recognition as not only the pioneer of a new aesthetic for bike-building, but also as the creator of pieces of what he dubs “functional art.”

Many of Kimura’s designs are based around themes gleaned from nature, such as a cheetah chasing down a kill, or a female praying mantis devouring her male mate. Often, too, he bestows on them outlandish names like Peanut Fighter or Muscle Granddad. Despite prices starting at around $40,000, there is a four-year waiting list for one of his bikes.

“My creations go down a lot better in the States than they do here in Japan,” says Kimura, slumped back in a stylish chair at Tom Dixon-designed Harajuku fashion store Tokyo Hipsters Club, where an exhibition of his work is on show until Nov. 12. Sporting tinted glasses and a battered biker jacket, he says there are far more takers across the Pacific than in his native land.

“Here [in Japan] you have all these regulations about insurance and registration, and there are far fewer places to ride. The bikes I make really need a long stretch of straight road to experience them fully, and there aren’t so many decent strips like that here. Out in California, though, there are hundreds of miles of desert.

“It’s also about the mind-set,” he continues in muted Japanese. “Playing around with vehicles — the spirit of customization — is far more respected in the U.S. And I guess in terms of the market [for bikes], there’s more of a culture of spending money on yourself — rewarding yourself with big purchases, especially autos. Here in Japan, people feel guilty about that kind of outlay, they think they should be saving money for their kids.”

Kimura’s path to becoming a hero of the custom-bikers’ world took a new twist after 10 years of building eye-popping bikes. By then, aided by his team of mechanics, Kimura had bagged every award a customizer in Japan could hope to win. In 2001, the publication of a book in English titled “Zero Chopper Spirit: Samurai Bikes from the East,” showcasing 34 of his designs, kicked up a big storm in the bike-enthusiast community overseas.

“I started getting e-mail and letters from bike fanatics all over the world, and overseas magazines started calling up asking to do features on my work,” recounts Kimura. “So I began to wonder about entering my bikes in a show overseas and seeing the reaction from bike fans over there with my own eyes.”

He duly entered his first overseas event, the Easy-Rider Show in Pomona, Calif., in 2004. He won third place, and says he was amazed by the reaction of bike fans there.

“There was a big crowd that gathered around and people were saying stuff like ‘This is a work of art! Thank you so much for bringing it here.’ And they were shaking my hand and taking so many photos. It was totally different from the Japanese audience, who would always just stand in silence admiring from a distance.”

Kimura has gone on to win various prestigious awards in the U.S., including the coveted Best of Show prize at the L.A. Calendar Show, and as well as “Biker Build-Off,” he is the subject of a chapter in Tom Zimberoff’s long-selling monograph “Art of the Chopper.”

The “samurai bike” builder says that Americans’ different perception of what constitutes art has also encouraged him to set up over there.

“In the States,” he explains, “People are far more willing to label themselves artists. From an old lady who sells the paintings she’s made at a flea market to a bunch of young girls who get together and play in a band, they’re all ‘artists.’ So if I’m using bikes to try to express something, well I figure that makes me an artist, too. I won’t be getting myself a beret and a pipe, though!”

The unassuming engineer says that the consensus among American enthusiasts that his creations were works of art had a profound effect on both his perception of, and approach to, his work.

“Since setting up in America, I’ve moved from being just a custom-bike builder to slightly changing my direction a little more toward the world of art. I don’t know whether success or failure is awaiting me in the future. Can custom bikes become art? Maybe we’ll know in 10 years’ time.”

Besides laxer restrictions on engine sizes across the Pacific, and a web of regulations issued by the Japanese authorities that he felt was hampering his creative freedom, Kimura says his move Stateside was also driven by a realization of the different perception of motorbike customization that comes with a more deep-rooted biking culture.

“America has a long and rich motoring culture that doesn’t bear comparison with that of Japan,” says Kimura. “You get granddads taking their grandsons to see custom bikes and saying ‘Gramps used to blaze down the freeway on a Harley back in the day, kid.’ When I experienced that sense of bike history, I started thinking about a move to the States.”

It would appear, though, that Kimura is already well on the way to having earned his place in the bike-builder hall of fame. This history of the motorcycle, as chronicled in an exhibition “The Motorcycle as Art,” organized by New York’s Guggenheim Museum, includes a chapter devoted to the aesthetic that Kimura is credited with pioneering. Titled “Retro/Revolutionary: 1990-2004,” it traces developments in motorcycle design: from the grunge aesthetic, whereby bikes are stripped of their traditional trappings, to reinterpretations and updates on classic designs from decades past.

The world of motorcycling is taken very seriously in the U.S., where there is even an academic quarterly, the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, devoted to exploring the history and culture of two-wheeled vehicles, as well as dozens of societies and circles ranging from outlaw gangs to Jewish biker club Sons of David, black biker club Ebony Riders, and a biker poet group by the name of the Word Pirates.

But while biker types are of course inclined to label the best examples of the customizer’s craft as works of art, there seems little likelihood of the establishment accepting them as pieces of “fine” art.

So can Kimura really be serious in thinking this exhibition at Tokyo Hipsters Club is one step toward his work being accepted as art?

“Well, this exhibition at THC has that desire underpinning it; it’s just one small step toward that. I hope that people visiting the show are able to feel the sense of art under all that iron and steel.”