Tiki Expert Sven Kirsten Traces the Evolution of the Art Form

From the Fall 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY SVEN KIRSTEN

The current craze of applying the term “tiki” to everything from Hawaii, or anything made from bamboo, is most unfortunate. It didn’t used to be that way. When I set out to get American Tiki style recognized as its own art genre, I would never have thought it would come to this, but pop cultures have their own way of developing once let out the bag. The “pop”ulace takes over and things get, shall we say, un-academic.

In my books about tiki, I made clear separations between “pre-tiki” and the “tiki” period—I drew charts, gave a dated chronology, and showed many examples of what was and what was not “tiki.” Even my most simplified formula—“If it says tiki on it, it should have tiki in it”—did not prevent the spreading of the seductive buzzword to be applied to all things “island,” even if there was no figure of the god Tiki in sight. After all, tiki is all about having fun, so who was I to tell people how to have it?

Since Hawaiian pop culture and tiki history have been covered elsewhere, I will endeavor to shed some more light on the definition and evolution of tiki style from Polynesian pop.

There are no words to describe the tiki vacuum that prevailed until the 1990s. The term or image to describe tiki as a culture did not exist. Even in the original tiki culture’s heyday in the early 1960s, tiki had not been recognized as a genre, despite the fact that the figure of the carved statue of Tiki had become a dominant icon for the recreational lifestyle. The fad had died and become extinct, unmourned. When the post-punk “Lounge” generation of the 1980s started to appreciate Martin Denny’s exotica music, memories of backyard luaus began to resurface. In the 1990s, dedicated urban archeologists started to collect remnants of the cult in the form of cocktail mugs. One of them (me), a foreigner from a generation three decades after tiki, then put the pieces of the puzzle together and, laying them out in a coherent manner, successfully demonstrated the pervasiveness of the tiki theme.

This mid-century recreational lifestyle, inspired by the vision of some tropical island paradise, was not new: It had been perpetuated for generations—in the United States in particular—before the tiki became its ambassador.

This is one of the common causes for the confusion about “tiki” style: Before the imposing figure of Tiki entered the stage, there already existed an intricate history of what I call “Polynesian Pop.” This early-20th-century pop culture was preceded by an even older South Seas storybook land.

Below: An iconic illustration from Armstrong Sperry’s 1940 book Call It Courage. Right: A menu from party hosted by Tiki News, a tiki-revival magazine.

As soon as the first Pacific island explorers like Bougainville and Cook returned to Europe, their reports from the unspoiled islands were usurped by thinkers and philosophers criticizing the ills of modern civilization. From the beginning, Polynesia was viewed through a Western filter of hopes and desires.

Next, writers such as Pierre Loti, Herman Melville, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the artist Paul Gauguin romanticized Oceania with tales and imagery of adventure and amorous exploits among the islanders. A whole genre of South Seas literature developed. With the birth of the film industry, many of these books were turned into movies, and once Hollywood took hold of the vision of the idle, idyllic island life, reality went completely South (Seas).

Parallel to this, the American public had developed a fascination with the unique music of Hawaii. Notwithstanding that the progenitors of the ukulele and the slide guitar were both imports to the islands, their sound came to represent romantic Polynesia. Together with the lilting, vowel-heavy Hawaiian language, they charmed Americans into what became known as the Hawaiian music craze. Hawaiian bands on the radio, on records, in concerts, and in the movies inspired mainlanders to pick up these instruments themselves and attempt to “go native.”



Hawaiian-themed supper clubs rose up in urban centers throughout the United States and gave Hawaiian bands the stage setting to perform in. These establishments, clad in floor-to-ceiling bamboo and populated by fake palm trees, served tropical rum cocktails in hollowed-out pineapples. But—there was nary an actual tiki figure in sight! These bamboo “South Seas” hideaways established the concept of an organic island retreat in the concrete jungle, where the tropical textures, soothing sounds, and exotic libations allowed urbanites to escape the stresses of the work world for a few hours.

After World War II, the experiences of a generation of young American men who had fought in the Pacific theater provided new fuel to the myth of the island paradise, even though the reality might have been different. Music again played a big part. James Michener’s best-selling war story collection Tales of the South Pacific was turned into a hit musical and movie, South Pacific, and the siren song “Bali Hai” let every American dream of their own island haven again. (The mythic “Bali Hai” of the film was actually the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.)

Below: Kon Tiki Hotel, Phoenix, Arizona; Thor Heyerdahl’s popular book brought the word “tiki” to many, a print of Palau islanders from a book published in 1839, Seattle’s Kalua Room may have been the first bar to use the tiki figure.

Another important event in the promulgation of Polynesian pop culture was the immense popularity of the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition. Even though it was manned by a Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl, and his European crew, Americans joined the rest of the world in being fascinated with this reenactment of an ancient raft voyage from South America to Polynesia. It was widely covered through radio and magazine reports, and Heyerdahl’s book about the voyage became a bestseller, while a documentary about the epic journey won an Academy Award. Not only did Kon-Tiki establish the term “tiki” in the popular vocabulary, it focused the public’s attention on the Polynesian Triangle and its island groups.

The coming of tiki was ushered in by a growing appreciation of so-called “primitive” art by the American middle class. No longer just the domain of the artistic avant-garde of the moderns, African and Oceanic art pieces found their way into American living rooms. Around the mid-1950s, Polynesian restaurants began to use the tiki as a logo on menus and matchbooks and in ads. In doing so, they replaced the earlier icon of Polynesia Americana, the Hula Girl.

The veterans of Polynesian Pop—Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic—who paved the way for tiki have been widely written about, but when did the actual tiki symbol make its first appearance? Recent evidence points to the Kalua Room in Seattle being the first to employ a logo tiki on its building, menu, and cocktail napkins upon its opening in December 1953. Already, the tikis’ characteristic features had become a stylized, cartoony version of real Polynesian carvings, and it would continue to develop that way. Around 1955, the pre-tiki chain Trader Vic’s started using a Maori tiki, and Tiki Bob’s, opened by an ex-employee of Vic’s, was the first to use the tiki name in conjunction with its cartoon-modern logo tiki.

Don Beachcomber Uke Tiki
Don the Beachcomber

A classic, telling example of the changing of the guard is the case of the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, today the best surviving example of an unaltered mid-century Tiki temple. The Mai Kai’s founders, the Thornton Brothers, had been regulars at Don the Beachcomber in Chicago. Deciding to open their own restaurant in Florida, they hired away Don’s manager and part of the staff, and built an elaborate A-frame village to dazzle the snowbirds with a Polynesian extravaganza. While Don had owned a trio of the so-called Tahitian Cannibal Tikis, he never made much use of them in his promotions. When the Thorntons opened the Mai Kai in December 1956, these tikis graced their ads, menus, and matchbooks to beckon the pleasure seekers. A new era of Polynesian pop had begun: The Tiki Era.

Way beyond the use of the tiki image in restaurant graphics, the godhead’s carved likeness began to multiply in the architecture and decor of Polynesian palaces. Tiki figures were employed as entrance guardians, support posts, and individual statues, adding a touch of authenticity to the exotic experience of drinking and dining in a South Seas eatery. The demand for pagan idols became such that, just like with tiki graphics, American artisans were employed to chisel the images in their own fashion. A unique art form evolved that blended Oceanic originals with modernist and cartoony stylization.

Tiki style came into its own as a genre when its concepts were applied beyond the restaurant and bar industry and began to be utilized in the architecture of apartment buildings, motels, and bowling alleys. (Hawaii becoming the 50th state in August 1959 certainly played a large role in all this, too.)  The tiki style was equated with recreation and fun, promising that instant vacation experience associated with the Hawaiian Islands. In private homes, tikis populated backyard party grounds and downstairs rumpus rooms. The still-young medium of television featured series like Hawaiian Eye and Adventures in Paradise (both starting in 1959 and running a few years), which brought the tiki image into every living room in glorious black and white. Carved figures were manufactured in the shape of kitchen and home-bar utensils such as ashtrays and lighters, always symbolizing the freewheeling spirit of Polynesian culture. The domestication of tiki was complete when the Montgomery Ward catalog offered a double-page of tiki items.

Tiki Time Ukulele Stuff4


It was around that time, beginning in the late ’60s, that tiki fever reached a saturation point. A new generation wanted nothing to do with their parents’ recreational pursuits, criticizing their attempts at a “plastic Polynesia.” As people became more aware of the colonial crimes of the past, the naive way of depicting indigenous cultures lost its innocent charm for a more politically aware generation of young Americans. Tiki was relegated to the trash heap of past fads, its unique class of artistic and creative endeavors disappearing unnoticed.

With the recent re-appreciation of tiki as art, the specter of political incorrectness has risen again in the form of the buzzword “cultural appropriation.” However, ever since the ancient Greeks copied Egyptian designs, people have been infatuated and inspired by cultures other than their own—not in an attempt to own some other country’s cultural achievements, but as an homage to that country’s artistry, celebrating the diversity of human creativity.

Hawaii has long been appreciated as a melting pot of all the Pacific nations. Whatever happened to that earlier, more positive buzzword: “multiculturalism,” the obvious and inevitable mixing of cultures? As a German, should I be offended by the Bavarian-costumed waitresses in American versions of German beer halls?

My work in mid-century American Tiki has been welcomed by Pacific islanders from Fiji and exhibited in unison with that of a tiki carver from Tonga. There was nothing but appreciation for having uncovered a further facet of the creative influence of Tiki, the god of the artists. Let’s not fall prey to the current climate of isolationism, but embrace all examples of inspiration from other worlds. Tiki was there before us and it will be there after us.

 Sven Kirsten is the author of several books on the history of American tiki culture, including The Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop: America Imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradise (both published by Taschen). His latest book, The Art of Tiki, comes out in October.