Tiki Redefined

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Tiki means a lot of things to a lot of people. At its root, the word Tiki refers to a god or idol, a symbol. As a purely American pop culture creation, Tiki was started in the 1930s in Hollywood as an escape. It borrowed heavily from Polynesian culture, including a love of tropical island motifs, music, and of course the carved statues know as Tikis. This phenomenon grew after World War Two through the 1950s, culminating with the statehood of Hawai’i in 1959.

There are those who accuse the Tiki movement of gross cultural appropriation. If you look at the Tiki of the 1950s and early 1960s, they may be right. I’d like to think it wasn’t intentional, but people during this time period used images and customs of Polynesian culture in somewhat insensitive ways. Everything from hotels to bowling alleys were decorated to look like tropical hideaways, often bastardizing Polynesian names and displaying garish versions of Tiki gods, all in the name of perpetuating the myth of an escape from reality. It was way over the top.

This in part led to the demise of Tiki culture in the late 1960s. The Summer of Love generation replaced their parents’ rum-fueled escapism with their own form, powered by drugs and free love. Not only did they see their predecessors’ ways as square; they also were offended by the artificial feel of it all. The hippie crowd was a back to nature movement, and they saw Tiki as a disgusting misappropriation of other cultures that was shameful.

This view of Tiki culture exists to this day in certain circles. Some people find it tacky and insensitive, but I believe they’re missing the point. Don’t get me wrong: I realize that our grandparents’ Tiki was 1950s kitschy Americana at its finest, and I can appreciate it for what it was – a slice of Mid-Century pop culture. The resurgence of Tiki that started in the 1990s was different from the original form from half a century before. Yes, we were very interested in how everything became so popular in the first place, but modern-day Tiki enthusiasts are digging a little deeper.

The work of people like Sven Kirsten, Leroy Schmaltz, Josh Agle, and Jeffrey Berry unearthed the original roots of Tiki pop culture. The study of Polynesian culture, from architecture to the varying forms of Tiki gods, helped identify the source material for American Mid-Century versions of these forms. Artistic depictions of Tikis became more genuine. Exotica music and its original creators came to be better appreciated as vinyl treasures were resurrected from the dustbins of history. And the history of Tiki mixology traced the lineage of these mysterious rum drinks to their origins in Caribbean bars, and fueled a resurgence of these craft cocktails as their secret recipes were decoded.

All this is to say that I believe modern Tiki is a form of cultural appreciation, not appropriation. I personally enjoy and have a deep respect for Polynesian culture, which includes knowing the difference between the peoples of Hawai’i and New Zealand and all islands in between. I appreciate the fact that most Tiki drinks were derived from recipes created by bartenders in Jamaica, Cuba, and across the Caribbean, and that most of today’s great rums still come from this part of the world.

And all Tikis aren’t created equal. A Ku from Hawai’i is very different from a Moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), which is in turn half a world away from the Maori carvings of New Zealand. My favorite Tikis come from the Marquesas Islands, and the one actual wooden Tiki statue I own was carved by a man in Kaua’i in the Marquesan style.

If you want to learn more about Tiki culture and the appreciation that is the modern Tiki revival, please check out the following books that serve as indispensable reference guides to me:

Sven Kirsten: The Book of Tiki

Douglas Nason featuring SHAG and Leroy Schmaltz: Night of The Tiki

Jeffrey Beachbum Berry: Potions of the Caribbean

In the mean time, please check out these respectful depictions of Tiki carving styles from different Polynesian countries. Mahalo.

All photos below taken from Night of The Tiki.

Hawaii – Ku (God of War)
Rapa Nui – Moai
New Zealand – Maori
Papua New Guinea – Mwai mask
Marquesas Islands – Fertility Tiki

A Small Collection

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Tiki mugs are addictive. At least, they are for me. It all started with a nice score on eBay, and since my first Tiki mug purchase, I’ve gone on to collect a few more. I’m now out of room in the shelf I built just 6 months ago, which means I should probably stop buying Tiki mugs. Or build another shelf in A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge. 😎

As I marvel at the small collection of Tiki mugs I’ve amassed in just a few short years, it dawned on me: these works of art are mileposts along my Tiki journey. I will now recreate that journey for you, with pictures to prove it. Here we go.


The Kahiki Polynesian Supper Club, Columbus OH. As mentioned before, I found this gem on eBay, at a pretty reasonable price. There were many Tiki mugs sold at The Kahiki, so it isn’t particularly rare, but I had just begun researching this now-extinct Tiki temple and had a trio of “worlds colliding” moments (see Whenceforth A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge) when I found this mug. It was the start of a new addiction.


The Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show, Fort Lauderdale FL. As my research into Tiki temples continued, I learned of the granddaddy of them all, The Mai-Kai. Founded in 1956 by two brothers from Chicago, this is the oldest and best Polynesian supper club in the world. My wife Jessica and I took a long weekend trip to Fort Lauderdale a couple of years ago (see Aloha Spirit: The Mai-Kai) so I could see this Tiki Mecca for myself. We spent many hours in this beautiful place, walking through the gardens, checking out the amazing Polynesian dance show, and knocking back a few libations in The Molokai Lounge. The tall Tiki mug came with my first Mai-Tai, and the rum barrel came from the gift shop. Good times, and I would return later for The Hukilau.



Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room and Trader Sam’s, Anaheim CA. In 2013, Jess and I hit the road again, this time to California for the 50th anniversary celebration of The Enchanted Tiki Room (see Aloha Spirit: Los Angeles). We spent a couple of sessions in the new Trader Sam’s, where my favorite drink was the Krakatoa. It came with a cool animated show in the bar and this spiffy, lava-dripping Tiki mug. I also picked up this amazing Pele mug by Kevin Kidney at the Enchanted Tiki Room festivities, where I also scored some cool SHAG swag from the man himself. It was a memorable trip that contributed a lot of pieces to the Tiki Lounge.


The Hukilau, Fort Lauderdale FL. In 2014, I left Jessica at home and met my buddy Bruce at The Hukilau, the East Coast’s biggest Tiki weekender event (see The Hukilau: Day 1). 4 days of hanging out with like-minded Tiki geeks led to many new friendships and 2 cool new Tiki mugs: an orange coconut mug and a Marquesian cannibal mug by Eekum Bookum. Tasty.

Tiki Pop, Paris France. Sven Kirsten is the godfather of the modern Tiki movement (see Tiki Ohana: Builders). His newest book, Tiki Pop, was the companion book to the expo he had in Paris in 2014, Tiki Pop : L’Amérique rêve son paradis polynésien, at the musée du quai Branly. I gladly scooped up this tome and the Tiki Bob mug that came with it. Both are displayed proudly in the Tiki Lounge.


Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago IL. Last year, for my 50th birthday, the family took a road trip to Chicago. We spent time visiting my buddy Bruce, who lives in Lincoln Park, and he surprised me with a gift of this cool Tiki mug from Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge in Minneapolis MN. After a wonderful dinner at David Burke’s Primehouse, Jess took the kids back to the hotel and Bruce and I headed to Three Dots and a Dash for some Tiki drinks. While there, I picked up this gorgeous seahorse bowl designed by Baï of Paris. This is the most beautiful piece of Tiki art I own! It would inspire me to get another Tiki mug from Baï later.


Hawaii Kai, New York NY. When we returned from Chicago, my mother-in-law Phyllis surprised me with a gift of this cool bamboo Tiki mug. She got it on her honeymoon in NYC, at the now-defunct Hawaii Kai, Manhattan’s most famous Polynesian supper club. This is the rarest Tiki mug in my collection. Mahalo, Phyllis!


Tiki Lounge, Pittsburgh PA. Last year, we attended the first annual Wildwood Vintage Tiki Weekender in Wildwood NJ (see Wildwood Weekend), organized by my friend Beth Lennon of Retro Roadmap. I made a lot of new friends at the beach that weekend, including Paul Matarrese from Pittsburgh. During a room crawl / swap fest, I bartered one of my music compilations for this cool Tiki mug Paul brought along. The matchbook was a nice throw-in.

 Tiki Farm, San Clemente CA. Tiki Farm is one of the most popular purveyors of Polynesian pop culture around. They’ve created many Tiki mugs during the current Tiki revival, and just celebrated their 15th anniversary with this beautiful mug by Doug Horne. The mug comes with a cast-in spear holder in the back to hold a cool orange spear swizzle stick.


Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at The Polynesian Village, Orlando FL. On a quick trip to Orlando for a work sales conference last month, we made a quick stop in my happy place, The Polynesian. When we were there for our last family vacation, Trader Sam’s was still under construction. It’s now open for business! I met my newest Tiki friend, George Borcherding, for some Dole Whips and a couple of Tiki drinks. Our first drink was the Uh-Oa, which came in this cool bowl. I now have 2 Tiki mugs from Trader Sam’s, one from each coast.


Ku by Baï, Paris France. Ku is the Hawai’ian God of War. This is my 2nd Tiki mug designed by Baï, but this one I got directly from her. Whereas the Three Dots and a Dash seahorse bowl is my most beautiful Tiki mug, Ku is my most detailed and substantial Tiki mug. I really love Baï Tiki’s work – it’s stunning!

So there you have it. These are my prized possessions: Tiki mugs collected along many stops of my Tiki journey. But these aren’t the only Tiki mugs I own. My friends have a habit of thinking of me during their travels, and pick up little Tiki trinkets to bring home as gifts to me. Some of these gifts are Tiki mugs. Nondescript but cool, I haven’t been able to identify their origins, but I display them around A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge nonetheless. Here are a few final pictures of these beauties in action. If anybody recognizes any of these Tiki mugs, please let me know. Aloha!