Tiki Redefined

Standard

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

Paradise Lost?

Standard

So, I just finished reading a book about Paul Gaugin called Gaugin: Tahiti. Now I’m not much of an art fan, other than my love of modern Tiki artists (see Tiki Ohana – Artists ,  Tiki Ohana – Artists, Part Deux) and Edward Hopper (see Edward Hopper). I know enough to be dangerous about old-school artists. I never really knew anything about Paul Gaugin and had certainly never seen any of his artwork. When I found out he left France to pursue his late career in French Polynesia, I was intrigued, so I read his story.

Apparently, Gaugin left France because he was disgusted with the traditional art scene, culture and politics in his mother country. He hoped to find a more primitive lifestyle in Tahiti to transform his art. He also had a lust for young ladies, which he partook of in abundance in Tahiti, much to the detriment of his reputation. Many believe it took many years after his death for Gaugin’s art genius to be acknowledged in France because of his horrible character and his outspoken criticism of the French establishment. But that’s another story.

IMG_1435

Gaugin leaves France for French Polynesia in search of a more primitive lifestyle, an escape, if you will. Here’s why I was drawn to this story: it reminds me of Tiki escapism in Mid-Century America and it’s revival today. Gaugin was looking to surround himself with the natural beauty and color of Tahiti to reinvigorate his art. Isn’t that what Tiki does for us now, in a way? We seek an escape through music, art, libations and all things Polynesian, both authentic and faux, to get us to a better place.

067BE09B-3494-47C2-85A5-0E94DBC71C15

Unfortunately, when Gaugin first arrived in Tahiti in 1891, he was disillusioned by what he found. The French government had beaten him there by at least 50 years, and the colonizers and missionaries did a great deal to subjugate and evangelize the local population. What Gaugin had hoped to find, a primitive culture and people, had become a lot like what he was trying to escape in France. His behavior, both regarding his disdain of the local government and appetite for Tahitian girls, put Gaugin at odds with the Tahitian authorities. Some escape!

Tiki’s original downfall in the late 1960s had a similar story. This so-called “escape” was decried by the hippie generation as a completely artificial and unnatural world. There was some truth to this narrative. Original Tiki did borrow from Polynesian culture in a very loose sense, which some people then (and even to this day) saw as an exploitation of these native lands. Was it wrong or disrespectful to appropriate sacred carved Tikis as gods for a new culture of escapism?

IMG_1437

For Gaugin, his desire to get back to a more primitive state of nature had a noble cause: to improve his art. It’s sad that his own baggage dragged him down, and the colonization of Tahiti demoralized him even further. Gaugin was only human, after all, and human nature in both his own case and the French occupiers of this Polynesian paradise ultimately defeated his ideal. Broken, both emotionally and physically (years of STDs had taken a toll on his body), Gaugin relocated to the more remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in 1901 before passing away there in 1903.

IMG_1436

The revival of Tiki culture beginning at the turn of the 21st Century also had a noble cause: the rediscovery of a lost culture in its purest form. Yes, Tiki culture is as much artifice as it is art, but we current Tiki enthusiasts don’t make excuses for this or pretend this escape is something more than just that: an escape. In addition, the broad scope of Tiki culture can lead (and has led for me) to a much deeper dive into its various elements. The differences in Tiki carving styles among the different Polynesian islands. The origin of Tiki drinks from humble beginnings in the Caribbean to exotic cocktails painstakingly crafted by expert mixologists. The architecture and design of lush Tiki temples all over the world.

IMG_1438

Again, there is no need to make any excuses for enjoying the Tiki lifestyle. When I was troubled recently by a video mocking the American occupation of the Hawai’ian islands, my friend George Jenkins responded: “Good luck finding a square inch of this planet that doesn’t have some nasty history associated with it.” Truth. We humans have a nasty habit of fucking up our world through our greed and lust for power. But we can still be positive about Tiki and our brand of escapism, as long as we are respectful of others. Added my friend Scott Deeter: “Hawaii has a very complicated history for sure, Andy. But there is amazing beauty in both the land and the culture there. Don’t be an ugly tourist–just like visiting anywhere.” Wise words from my fellow Tiki enthusiasts.

So, while you’re enjoying a Mai-Tai, think about all of those who came before us in this escape we call Tiki. Paul Gaugin would be happy to join us there!

IMG_1439