KOSUKE SAITO: THE SOLOIST
Photos by Steven Perilloux
Interview by Ward Robinson
This article was written back in, probably, 2012. Kosuke had his shop in Echo Park and before he opened the shop upstairs on Sunset Blvd. He has since been stuck in Japan, not sure when he can come back to the states.
I met Kosuke Saito at Inspiration Trade Show in Long Beach a few years ago. He was selling a line of work shirts called Sunrise Cycles that caught my eye, we chatted. I went through a book he had of photos of motorcycles. The designs were clear and cohesive and the execution was loose, as though the bikes were wearing their maker's intent like an old pair of jeans: an all chrome Honda tank racer; a gorgeous, psychedelic-metal-flake sprayed, Denver Choppers-style shovel; a menacing, bare metal, stripped-down, vintage-coffin-tank-sporting panhead with rough-hewn patinas everywhere and radical pullback bars. I asked him whose bikes they were. "My bikes", he said. "I built them all. Everything fabricated." I wanted to talk more, to find out who was building bikes of this range and depth by hand in LA. He invited me over to his shop.
A few days later I wandered over to the alley where his shop is tucked away and interrupted Kosuke and his assistant Steve welding a frame together. Sunrise Cycles' headquarters is not impressive in the typical sense. What is impressive is Kosuke's ability to do such gorgeous work in such cramped space. The garage is small, narrow and dimly lit. There are several bikes in various stages of completion, a couple of them on stands, a half dozen bikes ready to be refinished and a cordoned-off area for grinding and bending metal. Just inside the door is a sleek blue dream called 'The Skinny Pan'.
The Skinny Pan is a clean rethink of a late 70s/early 80s Arlen Ness masterpiece: a long, low, brilliant blue frame with a massive, gleaming panhead that bursts out from under a long coffin tank. It sports an understated suicide shift setup and skinny tires on wire wheels. Violent, classy and totally rideable, it is an example of the best kind of modern bike building: an original construction sprung from a mind soaked in the techniques and style cues of the past, flawless in execution and meant to be driven. It feels both like a representative for a lifelong love affair with motorcycles and a giant fuck you to skeptics.
Kosuke invited me into his office so we could chat while Steve worked. He offered me a seat because you can't stand up all the way - the ceiling is about 5'7". He has no computer at his desk "Fuck no, I get distracted", but there is an engine in the process of rebuild at a work bench and there are random piles of magazines, books and ephemera stacked about - evidence of a life spent combing swap meets for parts and ideas. "I buy a box with 20 things in it and I use one thing, so, shit is everywhere."
Kosuke Saito was born and raised in Nagoya, in the Chubu region of Japan. After a wild youth devoted to building and riding motorcycles, he apprenticed at a custom Harley shop in Nagoya. Four years later, at twenty two, he emigrated to the US because motorcycle laws were getting too stern in his home country. "If you change the exhaust you went to jail. There was no future, I said fuck this and came to America to do different stuff." His intention was to go to school, but he spoke no English, had no money. "The only way I could make money is to build motorcycles. I got a job at Powerplant with Yaniv. I couldn't speak English but we had similar interests. Started working there without any speaking. I made a lot of friends, learned a lot of English. We had different goals, I have to feed my wife and kids, and so eventually I said fuck this and I have to get my own shop." He had had a shop in Gardena for two years when he relocated over three years ago to his current spot here in Los Angeles. "I wanted to call it Sunset Cycles but it seemed like a terrible business name so I decided on Sunrise."
Kosuke on LA Trends
"I don't worry about what style is in, I build what i like. I like machinery, old drag cars, early Arlen Ness, Denver Choppers. I don't need to collect books and magazines, if I see it and I like it I will remember. Then I change it in my head-sketch it in my head before I build it. Everything has been done. Even cafe style has been done. If you think you made something cool, look in an old magazine and for sure you will see it. So. Nothing is originality. The 70s club style bikes you see in LA, that was years ago. I was there two years ago. I'm way past that. To us, to professional bike builders, those guys are amateurs. All new crowd. I'm just doing everything from scratch now. I like the old club style, sure, I like everything. But I get over that style two years ago.
"In Japan the trends are 2 years behind the trends in LA. All the trends start in LA. Even the East Coast is a year late. It's getting faster, before the internet it was way longer even. Then, if a trend catches on in Japan, they buy everything. Like idiots. They drive up the price of everything for that bike eight to ten times. Really sucks."
Kosuke on Shop Location
Sunrise Cycles is in an alley in Echo Park. There is no sign, no welcome mat. The address and phone number are not on the website. "If customer wants a bike they can email. I don't want walk in customer, they are just wasting my time. People come into the shop and ask, 'What year is this and that'. I lose my mind on what I am doing and it takes so long to get back. Then they leave and what the fuck. Nothing has happened, I lose money. So I don't want them here. Maybe one day I take my email off the website too and if customer wants to find me they ask someone who knows. But I'm not at that level yet."
Kosuke as a Grommet
At twelve he wanted to start riding motorcycles but was too young to buy one legally. So until he was sixteen he...well...he kinda stole them. "I was a stupid kid. When I turned sixteen, I bought a 400cc Honda Shadow and chopped it. I did not know what the fuck I do. There was nowhere to put the license plate so I put it on my backpack. The cops did not like that."` Kosuke got booted out of high school, took the GED and did a short stint learning the basics at an automotive engineering college. By eighteen he had a small garage with friends and had bought a panhead, whose engine he broke down and rebuilt countless times in the four years he owned it. "I was doing it but was an amateur. My first job was in a shop with one of the older guys around town, they were into American bikes. With British and Japanese bikes you had so many rules, but with Harleys you can do whatever you want and be cool. I want that freedom. I worked 14 hour days 6-7 days a week for less than a grand a month. I could help, like holding metal, but I didn't touch a welder for a year and a half."
Kosuke on who are the best builders
"I usually talk shit so I don't know who else is good right now. People who have skills don't have my taste. Most So Cal guys are garage builders, which is the trend now. It is mostly these guys and they build cool bikes for sure but they are not professional bike builders. That is really different. Nobody builds bikes by themselves around here. Nobody builds the pipes, nobody builds the frames. I want to make it from scratch, they don't have the skills."
I throw out names to get his take:
"What he did was fucking great. When I saw his bikes in Japan I said what the fuck. He made a huge difference. He owns that style, it is his style, but he won't do anymore bikes."
"Does an amazing job and does everything by himself. He is a great builder. His imagination is....I get my inspiration from something, I think Shinya doesn't get his inspiration from anything. He is an artist, but he has gone way too far out for me to relate to."
"Falcon is good. They are doing things that are fucking crazy, I can't afford to do what they do. I am good friends with Ian, but I don't have the budget to do that stuff. They sell bikes for crazy money but I don't think they are making any money on them even still. I really like his detail it is fucking crazy. For me I get close and say fuck it it's good enough but for him it has to be perfect."
Kosuke on build ideas
"I build what I like. Before, I had to follow customer ideas, how everything would look, but it never works right. Now I ask what style of bike-bobber, chopper, cafe, whatever. I like a period, so I ask if it's fifties/sixties England, sixties/seventies California or whatever and then I do a lot of research on how did they build it then? Every chopper I mostly understand but if it's something I haven't done I do the research. I'll ask the customer how high, how low, maybe what color...maybe. But I won't take any parts from them. Maybe one part. A kick pedal maybe. But mostly I won't use it. Then I build what I like."
Kosuke on The Skinny Pan
"When I build the blue bike last year not so many people understand what I did. I had the idea for a long time for that bike. I find cool stuff at swap meets, like a cool tank, and I'll build a bike from that. I can copy it but I like to use the old part and start from there. That bike I found the tank and I loved it, it's the same tank as the first Sunrise bike. I love that tank, I have another one and I want to build a bike a year with that tank. I got the idea where I'm going from the tank. I made the frame and stuff but not too many people know-only custom bike builders. I build the engine too, most people don't make custom engines. I put a lot into that bike, a lot of things that I had thought, 'Oh fuck I want to do that but not for this bike.' I made everything but the tank. People are starting to understand now, starting to dig it."
Kosuke on Custom Work
"I make three custom bikes a year. I am working on three right now and I am refinishing five or six. Customers are fucking pissed. It is slow so most people get pissed and under pressure I have to work. But custom work never makes money. I am no good at using bolt on parts from the catalog and I hate plastic so I have to make everything. It is stupid but I have to, so it takes more time and I don't get paid for it. Also people don't understand why it costs more for the custom work. Like when you buy a regular exhaust it is two hundred bucks so people don't understand why custom exhaust is two thousand. I can't do it another way so I waste my time building it and not charging for it. If I had a bigger name people wouldn't care. Right now I build cheaper than I should but customers let me do what I want so I don't care. I'm out on my own. Trying. Most people don't know the difference though. Seems like I am wasting my time. I get in too deep, I don't have to build things but I can't help myself. It is the worst business but I love it."
Kosuke on the future of Sunrise
"I want to do the bike. I love this shop, I don't want it bigger. Maybe a little less dark. I am doing clothes, making clothes you can sell the image. I'll open a shop for the clothes at the end of the summer but it will be separate. I am the same way with the clothes though. I make the shirts in LA, I make the body. I have to charge $45 to make any money. I am making other clothes too, work shirts, navy shirts, a jacket. I make stuff I like, that I am gonna wear. Again, I hate plastic so no polyester, again I'm wasting time. Everything has to be cotton. I don't care about the cost, I don't care about the trends. I just want to do myself. I am pretty bad for sales talk, I'm too honest to do what's wrong. I tell people where they can find parts cheaper. Maybe a partner would be a good idea but I don't want to hear them talking and their ideas I say fuck you I want to do it my way. I really understand I am a fucking idiot. But I really have to do it my way."