Lowriders, those street-hugging cars with hydraulic lifts, are famous for being made in the 'hood, pieced together by backyard enthusiasts and body shops from South-Central to East Los Angeles.
But now they have reached international status, becoming inner-city Los Angeles' top export to Japan.
The most coveted of the customized classics--the early '60s Chevy Impala convertibles that cost $5,000 to $15,000 on the streets here--are being spruced up and sold in Japan for $25,000 to $35,000 and up.
The Japanese thirst owes much to the explosion of rap music, videos and modern-day gangster movies featuring lowriders as the car of choice. It was inevitable that Japan, fascinated by so many quirks of American culture, would turn to Los Angeles, one of the West Coast cities where the lowrider style originated among young Latino men in the 1950s.
Pomona-based Lowrider magazine, the bible of the craze, has joined with a Tokyo publishing company to put out a Japanese-language edition featuring ads for everything from cars to hats emblazoned with the names "Inglewood," "Compton" and "East L.A."
Lowrider's publisher, Alberto Lopez, traveled to Japan in 1992 to help organize one of the first Japanese lowrider shows, which drew some 300 entries. Today, he estimates, Japan has anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 American-made lowriders, a drop in the bucket compared to the 75,000 to 100,000 cruising the streets of America.
"A lot of people said [the Japanese market] was just a fad, but it has developed a strong foundation," Lopez said. "The Japanese people have a great appreciation for lowriders because they are built with pride, and Japan is a society built on pride."
Japan has lowrider clubs, stores specializing in accessories and shows where cars are judged on appearance and their unique ability to jump and dance at the flip of a hydraulic switch.
There is a debate in lowrider circles about whether Japanese interest will siphon away prized cars from America's shores or reinvigorate the cottage industry. What is undeniable is that the cars are moving west. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, shippers estimate that they have moved hundreds of lowriders to Japan in the past year.
To satisfy the demand back home, a handful of Japanese dealers have moved here to negotiate directly with the makers, haunting neighborhoods day and night from the Eastside to Watts to Santa Fe Springs.
The specter of violence taints some transactions because many of the cars are manufactured in rough neighborhoods. Several Japanese dealers say that a colleague was recently robbed of $20,000 during a negotiation that turned sour.
When FBI agents raided the home of a Watts gang leader a couple of months ago, they missed their man, but found two Cadillac lowriders, destined for sale in Japan, in the suspect's backyard.
However, buyers and sellers emphasize that many of those who build lowriders got involved with the cars to escape crime and drugs.
Robert Clausell, 29, grew up in Compton and has been making lowriders most of his adult life. So far he has sold 11 to Japanese brokers. He is a testament to how lowriding has spread from its Latino roots to the African American community, where rap artists such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg have popularized the vehicles in their videos.
Known as "Zuess" (a reference to Dr. Seuss) since he was 14, Clausell picked up the art of lowriding from an older brother.
"I figured this is what I know best," he said. "I dropped out of school in the 11th grade and have been working on cars since.
"The best thing about the car going across the ocean on those boats is that it doesn't belong to you anymore. You got your check. You got paid."
He fantasizes about traveling to Japan. "I want to see what happened to the cars I made. I want to see what they look like now. I want to meet the people who are riding them."
For Japanese dealers, making contacts with people like Clausell is crucial in a land where people are killed over as little as car wheel rims, let alone expensive cars.
"You always have to watch your back," said Takashi Kikuchi, a 29-year-old Japanese broker who moved here to broker lowriders. "I only deal with people who know me, people who know me more than someone who buys cars--people who think of me as a homie. You make more in this business if you take care of people who take care of you."
Kikuchi's prime target is Yokohama, the Japanese city most taken by lowriding and influenced by the presence of a U.S. Navy base. On Friday and Saturday nights, clusters of lowriding aficionados gather near a bridge, drawing attention and annoyance for playing loud music.
In his search to supply these customers, Kikuchi visits body shops in and around South-Central and East Los Angeles and goes to parties, picnics and car shows throughout Southern California. He takes pictures of cars and sends them to prospective customers in Japan.