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

Aloha Spirit: Los Angeles

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As I mentioned before, I believe karma introduced me to Tiki, and it continues to swim in my bloodstream. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

Los Angeles CA, June 2013. For my 48th birthday, I decided I wanted to travel out to Disneyland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Enchanted Tiki Room. Once again, my wife Jess balked at going with me, at first. I had resigned myself to making this trip as cheap as possible, staying at Comfort Inns to use up my Choice Hotels points, eating a lot of tacos and burgers, since the flight would not be inexpensive. This all changed when I suggested to Jess that we could spend a day in Disneyland and another touring Hollywood. She was in!

Of course, now this would no longer be a trip done on the cheap. My ladyfriend likes to travel in style! Actually, the only major change was in hotels: we would now be staying at the Disneyland Hotel, which all though it was a little salty, had its advantages. We would be within walking distance of the Disneyland park, which gave us some flexibility on Saturday. The Enchanted Tiki Room celebration was taking place in the Disneyland Hotel’s grand ballroom on Friday night and Saturday, and since this was the focal point of the trip for me, staying there was another bonus. SHAG was signing his prints at the show on Saturday afternoon, so we could sneak away from the park, check him out, take our signed loot back to our room, and head back to the park for the evening. Good planning.

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We actually flew into LAX on Friday morning. Our flight got in around 10:30, we picked up our rental car at about 11 (travel tip: Enterprise at LAX rocks!), and headed for Whittier CA first, arriving just in time for lunch. Our first order of business was to try In-N-Out Burger for the first time – it didn’t disappoint! Jess stumbled upon their secret menu, so we had our burgers and fries “animal style,” and I really enjoyed the Neopolitan shake: vanilla/chocolate/strawberry all mixed together. Yum.

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The real reason for starting in Whittier was to find a Tiki Mecca: Oceanic Arts. I’ve written at length about our visit with Leroy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting (see Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit II, published 20Nov13). Let’s just say we had a great time visiting with these Tiki pioneers for a few hours, and they even gave us directions for the back roads to get from Whittier to Anaheim, so we could avoid the freeway traffic on a Friday afternoon. More importantly, I really believe seeing Oceanic Arts was the turning point in my wife’s apathy towards my Tiki obsession. Jess had a great time chatting up Bob and Leroy, took lots of pictures, and even insisted we buy Leroy’s book, Night of the Tiki. Between visiting this place and The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Jess is starting to get my love of Tiki. The trip was off to a great start!

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Once we finally escaped the gravitational pull of Oceanic Arts, we hit the back roads and headed for our next destination: Anaheim CA and the Disneyland Hotel. We made it there just in time to check in and have a little happy hour before meeting some old friends for dinner. That’s when we found the biggest advantage of staying here: Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. This gem happened to be right in front of our hotel building, a very short walk from our room. And what a place! I’ve also written at length about Trader Sam’s (see Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit, published 11Nov13). We liked it so much, we had happy hour and dinner there on Friday night and stopped back again for another round on Saturday afternoon before heading back to Disneyland. Good times.

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The Enchanted Tiki Room 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday afternoon was a nice event. We had pre-ordered lots of collectible merchandise and picked it up there. We saw lots of cool artwork and met some of the artists, including SHAG, who we were seeing for the 2nd time in 2013! He very patiently chatted with us and signed our stuff – what a nice guy! As an added bonus, we decided to sit in on a symposium featuring some of the original and more recent Disney Imagineers who have worked on The Enchanted Tiki Room over the years. They told some wonderful stories! The star of the panel discussion was Rollie Crump, an original Imagineer and one of Walt Disney’s contemporaries. Jess was really excited to see and hear Rollie Crump, as she had read all about him and his close relationship with Walt. What a nice treat.

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The rest of our trip was all about Jess. We spent Saturday morning and evening in Disneyland, which is something she had always wanted to do, comparing and contrasting the rides here with their counterparts at Walt Disney World, and although Disneyland is a lot smaller, there were some wonderful differences, in particular the whole New Orleans Square area, where we had a great lunch. Since we were only there for 1 day, Jess made sure we were first in line for rope drop. We knocked out the whole park by lunch time, and returned later in the afternoon to revisit the better rides and catch the Phantasmic show. That was amazing! The show was capped off by a live Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook battle aboard a pirate ship, followed by the Mark Twain steamboat piloted by Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse. Don’t miss this show when you come to Disneyland!

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Our last day, Sunday, was a whirlwind tour of some other SoCal hotspots. After breakfast, we headed for Hollywood to see the iconic sign and check out the famous Chinese Theatre. Our next stop was Paramount Studios, where the tour was wonderful. Finally, we headed for Santa Monica so we could put our feet in the Pacific Ocean, Jess for the first time ever, and had dinner in town. We ended the night at a hotel near LAX, and flew home early Monday morning.

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So, where does Tiki karma fit in to these 3 days in LA? Plenty of places. Starting with the thought that I convinced Jess to come with me on this trip by incorporating the touristy LA things I knew she would like to see, and in the end, I believe she enjoyed the Tiki stops almost as much. Then add the change of hotel venue to the Disneyland Hotel, which was her suggestion, and the advantages that came from that decision were many. Finally, something as small as getting better directions from Leroy Schmaltz at Oceanic Arts after listening to his cool stories for a few hours. All in all, it was a wonderful Tiki trip through La-La land. Mahalo, Los Angeles. We will be back.

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