The Tiki Tribe
With mugs, statues, songs and fashion, these kamaaina are carrying the kitschy, tacky, tiki torch.
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Artists influenced by the tiki style of the past have found a niche in the lowbrow art movement of today, and some actually fall into their own subgenre, Polynesian pop surrealism.
Tom Thordarson, a former Disney artist who simply signs his work Thor, paints elaborate, comical and very Disneyesque environments in which tikis figure prominently. Sometimes he creates fantasy tiki bars, and he once painted a series of portraits turning well-known figures associated with Hawaii into wooden tiki. They include tiki Barack Obama, tiki Tom Selleck and tiki Don Ho. Thordarson used to have the Thor Gallery in Waikiki, but now he sells his work at the Thor Store online.
The Kona-based painter Brad Parker once worked as an illustrator for Marvel Comics and did production design for Hollywood movies. When he finally got the courage to strike out on his own and do the work he wanted to do, he realized that the work always seemed to involve tikis. His tiki paintings reveal influences of comic books, monster movies and rock music, with the glowing and translucent qualities of the 18th-century Flemish masters. “It’s kind of pop culture done in an Old World kind of way,” he says.
In “The Werewolf of Waikiki” he depicts a wolfman with Steve McGarrett’s curl playing a tiki bongo in front of Diamond Head. In “Bela Lugosi Has a Zombie,” Dracula raises a toast with a bubbling tiki mug. Parker’s tiki-inspired designs also appear on the Body Glove brand of beach towels and beach mats.
One thing Parker says he’s careful not to do is to paint actual historical tikis. “I do live on a volcano,” he says. “And the last thing I want to do is step on the toes of any mystical beings that might rule the volcano.”
The ceramicists who make tiki mugs hold an esteemed place in the eyes of the tikiphiles. By tradition, these artists go by one name, such as Bosco, Squid, Shag, Flounder and Gecko. Mike “Gecko” Souriolle lives on Oahu, working at Pearl Harbor by day and firing tiki mugs in the garage studio of his Makakilo home by night. “When people order an exotic drink,” he says, “it should come in an exotic mug.”
Gecko’s work is prized among collectors, who have come from all over the world to meet the artist and buy mugs from his home studio and showroom. A limited edition Gecko starts at about $150 on eBay and goes way up from there. The price is affected by the type and complexity of the glaze. Every good tiki-mug artist has his secret glazes, Gecko says, just as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic had their secret drink recipes. “We’re all trying to create the mai tai,” he says. Gecko’s glazes includes one that looks like bubbling black lava and another made with genuine red Hawaiian dirt.
Before he started making mugs, Gecko carved tikis from wood. Then he discovered that ceramics could fetch similar prices. “And they cost less to ship than a 150-pound tiki,” he adds.