Tiki 101

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What is Tiki?

In Polynesian mythology, Tiki is a male figure sometimes identified as the first man. Tiki can also mean a wooden or stone image of a Polynesian god. But where exactly is Polynesia? Polynesia is a group of scattered islands in the Central and South Pacific Ocean, bordered roughly between New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Conventional wisdom states that the Polynesian islands were settled by Asian explorers headed east. But could there be another story? Again calling on Polynesian mythology, Tiki, the first man, came from the east, following the sun. According to Peruvian pre-Incan mythology, Con-Tici Viracocha, the creator god, disappeared across the Pacific Ocean and never returned. Was there a connection?

Thor Heyerdal thought so. A Norwegian explorer and sociologist, Heyerdal was convinced that Polynesia was settled by South Americans. In 1947, he set out to prove this theory by sailing from South America to Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft, like the pre-Incan explorers did. Heyerdal and his crew constructed their raft using only ancient methods and materials, and named it the Kon-Tiki. They succeeded in sailing from Peru to Tuamota, a distance of 4,300 miles, in 101 days. The Kon-Tiki expedition attracted worldwide attention for Thor Heyerdal and the Polynesian islands. Heyerdal’s documentary of this expedition won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1951.

The postwar period after 1945 saw an explosion of Polynesian and Tiki culture in America. Soldiers from the Pacific theatre of WWII, who experienced Polynesia firsthand, returned home with stories of a lush tropical paradise and beautiful native girls. These stories led to a growing interest in all things Polynesian, as an exotic escape from the everyday world. During the 1950s, Tiki invaded America in the form of bars and supper clubs, architecture, music and television, art, and home decor. The backyard luaus and basement Tiki bars peaked with the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state in 1959.

As we entered the 1960s in America, the growing drug culture replaced Tiki culture as the preferred means of escape for the next generation. Hippies saw their parents’ backyard Polynesia as pretty square, so Tiki became passé. Many old Polynesian structures and institutions were lost forever.

Fortunately, Tiki started regaining popularity in the 1990s. Urban archeologists like Sven Kirsten led the way back. Kirsten’s 2000 publication, The Book of Tiki, is the seminal work on the subject. He researched and recreated a cultural phenomenon that was, and is, purely American. Tiki today is once again manifest in resorts, bars, artwork, and music. Names like Disney have been responsible for keeping Tiki alive in their parks and resorts (Enchanted Tiki Room, Polynesian Resort, Trader Sam’s). Other names include Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (mixology), Josh “SHAG” Agle (art), Leroy Scmaltz/Oceanic Arts (carving/decor), King Kukulele (music) and many others. Tiki is alive and well!

So what is Tiki? Tiki is:

  • An escapist state of mind;
  • A blending of Polynesia and America;
  • A celebration of culture through art, music, decor and libations;
  • A nod to our mid-century past;
  • A thriving lifestyle today.

For more information, I highly recommend reading The Book of Tiki, seeing the movie Kon-Tiki, and liking my A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge page on Facebook for regular updates on all things Tiki. Mahalo!

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