Defining Tiki – An Observation

Disclaimer: This subject has been very hot-button in many social media forums as of late. The statements in this blog are the opinions of the writer.

Tiki has experienced a resurgency of sorts within the last year. It has popped up in cities that are total tiki deserts, such as Dallas, TX, where I currently live. Even Coachella had a “hidden” tiki bar this year. The current craft cocktail trend has helped this along quite a bit, as mixologists learn the lost art of authentic tiki cocktails. For the most part, this rebirth has been a very good thing.

Of course, when anything rises in popularity, you will always have people that interpret it very differently than you do, for one reason or another. That is definitely to be expected, and this is where it sometimes gets problematic, especially when you’re dealing with culture.

There is no denying the fact that the obsession mid-century America had with tiki has very dark roots, starting with our arrival on their islands, and the conflict that ensued due to our imperialistic tendencies. We took authentic Polynesian culture, and appropriated it to suit our tastes. Natives of Hawaii weren’t listening to Martin Denny – his music was an interpretation of what we thought it sounded like to be on the islands. The Rapa Nui people of Easter Island didn’t drink rum cocktails – that is an American innovation. In the 1950’s, we were a nation returning from war, and tiki was a way to escape the drudgery and social restrictions of the day. In a way, this appropriation resulted in a new “culture”, that of Polynesian Pop. One might be tempted to say that this appropriation is the very reason why tiki bars should not exist, as Sarah Burke wrote in a recent opinion piece. If you really put a magnifying glass to this, though, it’s not that simple. If it was, we’d have to tell every Tex-Mex restaurant in existence to go ahead and shut their doors, because they appropriate Mexican food and culture, and tailor it to suit their purpose. I can tell you that in a state such as Texas, that simply will NOT fly.

Polynesian Pop resulted in some of the most interesting architecture, design, music, fashion, and culinary creations this country has ever seen. We couldn’t get enough of it. Tiki was everywhere, from bars and restaurants, to hotels and apartments. There was even a theme park that was all tiki. In many instances, if they weren’t imported directly from Polynesia (which happened quite often), many objects inside these places were created to resemble the real ones as much as possible. There was dim lighting, bamboo everywhere, wood and stone carvings out the wazoo, and Polynesian floor shows, such as the one made most famous by the Mai Kai in Ft Lauderdale.

Half Moon Inn – San Diego, CA
Kon-Tiki Restaurant – Montreal, Quebec, Canada
mai kai interior
Interior of the Mai-Kai – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Without a doubt, tiki appealed to our imaginations. It was a time to let loose, and drop our inhibitions (the cocktails helped with that), just like the natives! We ate, drank, and luau-ed our way through a rather prosperous, but uptight time in American history. Alas, the party eventually came to an end.

With the onset of the sixties, tiki became fodder for mockery by the growing anti-war, flower child movement. It was something your stuffy parents did for fun, while you listened to your Jimi Hendrix records, smoked your marijuana, campaigned for civil rights, and demanded an end to the Vietnam conflict. Tiki was just an example of what happens when Americans take something that wasn’t their own, and made it their own. It was to be vilified, not celebrated. Tiki establishments began to dry up, as their decline in popularity continued throughout the seventies and eighties. In time, only a handful of the great Tiki watering holes remained – the rest were closed and taken over by other businesses, or fell victim to wrecking balls. If you really want to get depressed, check out this Flickr album of photographs of the demolition of one of the largest and best-known Polynesian palaces, the Kahiki in Columbus, OH. This was one of the very last famous ones to go, having been razed in 2000 and replaced with a Walgreen’s (insert angry face here).

I felt it was important to give this little history lesson so that you can better understand why tiki disappeared to begin with. Let’s go back for a moment to the cultural appropriation issue coming up today. Recently, an Irish pub in Corvallis, OR shut its doors and re-opened as a “tiki bar”, called Hapuna Kahuna. It wasn’t even open one week before it closed its doors again, and the owner took to social media to apologize for his culturally insensitive blunder. Local news outlets got wind of it, and tiki groups all over Facebook began to discuss it. It was there that I began to understand what some were already saying – it wasn’t necessarily the fact that it was a tiki bar that patrons found offensive, but the way it was executed.

The following two pictures best exemplify the problems with execution – notice that the logo features a cartoonish tiki with a bunch of pineapples on its head, and the interior has a scenescape which looks haphazardly put together, at best.

hapuna kahuna
Hapuna Kahuna scenescape
Hapuna Kahuna logo

The little scenescape is just awful – An Easter Island Moai stands next to a trio of parrots, who stand next to a painted tiki totem. This mashing together of items shows a deep lack of knowledge of anything truly tiki. There is also a photo floating around on social media of a poorly and garishly-painted tiki with a nose ring inside the bar. I concur with some of the more experienced minds among my tiki-phile friends – the reason people hated it is not due to them being sensitive little snowflakes – it’s because it showed a total disrespect and lack of knowledge of Polynesian culture – there is a difference.

Many tikiphiles like myself are very passionate about keeping tiki as authentic as possible. It is our way to enjoy it without being insensitive or offensive. I personally enjoy listening to Les Baxter records, but I also have a lot of records of authentic Polynesian music. While I can’t yet afford some real Oceanic artifacts and treasures, I can seek out artists who can recreate or even re-imagine them in a respectful manner.

Here’s where some people will get rubbed the wrong way – Tiki is an actual, defined concept/culture – it is not whatever you wish it to be. What it actually is has been defined by the great Sven Kirsten in The Book of Tiki. Even though it’s currently out of print, you can find copies on Ebay and Amazon from time to time. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to know more. His follow-up books, Tiki Modern, and Tiki Pop,  are also fantastic reads – Sven is a gifted urban archeologist, and his knowledge is extensive.

I am hopeful that more establishments don’t make the same mistake that the owner of Hapuna Kahuna made. Unfortunately, because tiki is rising in popularity, many places are eager to capitalize on people’s lack of knowledge, and are selling items that are mass-produced, poorly made, and for lack of a better word, tacky.

clown tiki
Tikis don’t wear lipstick and clown makeup.
Party City’s idea of tiki









I have been seeing a lot of this lately. It is assumed that tiki just means goofy or angry-faced statues, neon colors, and syrupy-sweet cocktails. The problem with lumping things like this along with Jimmy Buffet parrothead-type stuff is that the real meaning and concept of tiki is lost, as is the rich culture it is based on. Real tiki is not tasteless – it is something very well-defined, and in its own way, sophisticated when done correctly. Allow me to quote Merriam-Webster’s definition of “kitschy”:

“Something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality”

This is not the definition of tiki. It certainly has not been popular for a long time, it is not lowbrow (which means “of, relating to, or suitable for a person with little taste or intellectual interest”), and it is not poor quality, again, when done correctly. This is why I push back when I hear tiki defined as such. One only has to take a look at what has resulted from mid-century America’s obsession with Polynesian Pop to understand that. Going back to the beautiful carvings, architectural creations, and design elements that tiki brought us, one can see that real thought and work was put into it. Authenticity was still there in great part, if not entirely. Despite how we brought it to America, we still managed to retain elements of its roots, and we appreciated them. We aren’t perfect – not everyone got it right. But we have a chance now to bring it back to the masses and teach others how to keep it respectful and culturally responsible. We can patronize businesses who do make the attempt to understand and execute it in this way. We can patronize artisans who stay true to the original design styles and create quality work, rather than buying from places who mass-produce and do it poorly, for inflated prices. We can read the books that Sven Kirsten, Martin Cate, and Beachbum Berry have written about culture, aesthetics, and cocktails (of course), and become more educated. This is how we prevent another place from suffering the same fate as the Kahiki and many others like it. If we care, and can get others to care in a friendly and welcoming manner, we all win.

For further reading:

On Culturally Thoughtful Tiki –

The Book Of Tiki – Sven Kirsten

Tiki Modern – Sven Kirsten

Tiki Pop – Sven Kirsten

Cocktail-related reads:

Smuggler’s Cove – Martin Cate

Beachbum Berry Remixed – Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

Sippin’ Safari – Jeff “Beachbum” Berry





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