Like a zombie, which happens to be the name of one of its signature cocktails, tiki culture simply will not die. The golden age of tiki spanned five decades. It started in the post-prohibition 1930s, peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s, and didn’t sputter out until the disco ’70s. But it wasn’t down long. Before the last of the classic Waikiki tiki bars, the Tahitian Lanai, was demolished in 1996, a retro tiki movement was already underway. It’s still going strong today, and shows no signs of dying out.
The original tiki craze was driven by American fantasies of Polynesia as a primitive, enchanting, unfathomably mysterious place thoroughly divorced from any real Polynesian cultures. The tiki revival, bathed in the warmth of nostalgia (and often rum), sees something authentically American in that phony world of Polynesian pop—and something worth preserving, reinterpreting and discussing endlessly in the forums of tikicentral.com.
Like it or not, we are living in the neomodern tiki era, and in the interest of better knowing your fake culture, here’s what it looks like.
Sooner or later any study of tiki culture winds up at the bar, which is only right, since the bar is where the whole thing began. Specifically, it started at a little Polynesia-themed bar in Hollywood called Don the Beachcomber’s, which opened in 1934 and quickly inspired widespread imitation. The proprietor, Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, but what fun is that?), parlayed his trendy watering hole into a small restaurant empire. Beach later moved to Waikiki and built the International Marketplace, his super-tikified Polynesian-pop dreamland. Naturally, he put a Don the Beachcomber’s there. It is long gone, along with the rest of Waikiki’s original tiki joints. But many of Beach’s actual tikis, weathered and possibly termite eaten, still watch over things at the International Marketplace.
Waikiki has historically provided the best habitat in Hawaii for tiki bars, and the new generation of tiki bars has found a natural home there. Most prominent among them is Tiki’s Grill & Bar, perched above Kalakaua Avenue on the second floor of the Waikiki Beach Hotel. It’s the safe, manicured, family-friendly version of a tiki bar, with fine sunset views, an executive chef snagged from Roy’s and a dimly lit lounge in the crater of a volcano.
On the dive end of the neo-tiki-bar continuum there are places such as Arnold’s Beach Bar & Grill. Hidden down an alley off Saratoga Road, it offers $3 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon all day long, and free photo ops beside a life-size statue of a topless hula girl. There’s bamboo everywhere you turn and Easter Island moai staring at you from all directions.
As for authentic vintage tiki bars, there’s just one—the famous La Mariana Sailing Club, at the water’s edge in an industrial area off Sand Island Access Road. This is a place that visiting Mainland tikiphiles flock to like pilgrims to a shrine. Dating back to 1955 and filled with a half- century of authentic tiki kitsch—including dusty puffer-fish lamps around the bar and giant clam shells in the leaky lava-rock waterfall—La Mariana somehow manages to be both decrepit and grand.
The closing of Honolulu’s other great tiki temples has only deepened the layers of La Mariana’s decor. You’ll never be able to go back in time to have a mai tai at the old Don the Beachcomber’s in Waikiki, but you can kick back in one of its wicker chairs and set your tiki drink on one of its koa wood tables as you study the sailboats docked in front of La Mariana.
As classical tiki culture slid into decline, its rum drinks went with it, devolving into the bastardized mai tai and other fruity umbrella drinks that nobody takes seriously. But the original tiki drinks were well-balanced, sophisticated cocktails. And they had the best names. Missionary’s Downfall. Vicious Virgin. Cannibal Grog. Cobra’s Fang. Plantation Daze. Strip and Go Naked. Dying Bastard. Hell in the Pacific. Shrunken Head.
The tiki revival has restored some respect for these mid-20th century libations, and much of the credit belongs to Jeff Berry, a self-described “tropical drink evangelist” who likes to be called Beachbum Berry. With scholarly persistence, the Beachbum has dug up recipes for hundreds of forgotten or never-before-published tropical drinks. He shares them in four books, Grog Log, Taboo Table, Sippin’ Safari, and Beachbum Berry Remixed.
Brice Ginardi, a former Arizona department of water employee who moved to Kona and opened a tiki bar called Okolemaluna, drew upon the Beachbum’s work in creating his drink menu. Okolemaluna is now a sort of living museum of tiki drinks, where you can sample long-lost specialties such as the Lovely Lovely, from the Waikikian Hotel’s Papeete bar circa 1964, and the Happy Buddha, from Waikiki’s Red Chamber Bar circa 1960.
“We’re really trying to bring these great tropical cocktails back to the place they were invented and the climate they were invented for,” says Ginardi.
In another nod to the past, Ginardi has revived the communal beverage. Parties of three or more can share a single drink in a large bowl equipped with long, fat straws. “In a lot of the fun photos of vintage times you see people drinking out of these big bowls,” says Ginardi. “The tiki bar was communal. It was about having your neighbors along to see what kind of fun you could get into.”
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.
Exotica has provided the soundtrack for tiki culture ever since Martin Denny created the genre in the 1950s. The neoexotica groups of today, sometimes simply called tiki bands, include the Tikiyaki Orchestra, the Waitiki 7, and a Hawaii-based musical collective called Don Tiki.
Martin Denny approved of Don Tiki, so much so that he played on three tracks on the band’s 1997 debut album, The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki. Further deepening Don Tiki’s cred is its percussionist and bird caller, Lopaka Colon, son of Augie Colon, who had the same role in Martin Denny’s band. “His dad genetically coded him for bongos and bird calls,” says Lloyd Kandell, a Don Tiki co-founder.
The recently released South of the Boudoir is the band’s fourth album, but for the full Don Tiki effect you really have to take in a live performance, with all the crazy costumes and choreographed exotic dancers. Campy though the stage show may be, the music is no joke. “We never wanted to be a retro band or a nostalgia act,” says Kandell, whose stage name is Fluid Floyd. “We sincerely love this music and want it to be kept alive.”
Some of Don Tiki’s members live on the Mainland, so Hawaii shows are rare. But the band is well-traveled. It’s done Vegas, it headlined a summer music festival in Germany, and it played the night the Kahiki died. The Kahiki Supper Club of Columbus, Ohio, is a legend in the tiki world. It was a massive tiki palace with thatched huts, a rain forest and monolithic tiki heads beneath its 80-foot-tall Polynesian-style roof. Despite a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it was torn down in 2000 to make way for a Walgreens pharmacy. Don Tiki performed the night it closed, playing on a stage before a three-story tall Easter Island moai with glowing red eye sockets and a fireplace for a mouth.
The Kahiki was packed. “Half the crowd was the town VIPs and the mayor coming to say thank you for 50 beautiful years of service,” Kandell recalls. “And the other half were these aging international super hipsters from the East Coast, the West Coast, London, Australia, and all over. It was an interesting combination.”
The Freaky Tiki People
I asked Kandell to tell me more about the super hipster tiki people, and he said: “We’re like these aging punk rockers. We are still super hipster outsiders, but we’re a little too old to be in the mosh pit. Maybe we have tattoos, and bones through our noses, but we need to chill out with a mai tai and listen to some exotica.”
Certainly not all of today’s tiki people were slam-dancing to the Sex Pistols in the 1980s, but a real subculture does exist at the heart of the tiki revival. It has a bible, the 287-page tome by amateur urban archaeologist Sven Kirsten entitled The Book of Tiki. It has a quarterly periodical, Tiki Magazine. It has annual conventions, such as Tiki Oasis in San Diego and the Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale. It has all sorts of blogs and websites, the foremost being tikicentral.com, a discussion forum with some 12,000 registered users. Want to talk about Gilligan’s Island, or get into a fight over whether Jimmy Buffet contributed to the decline of tiki or simply filled the void, or find out what other tiki people are drinking right now? Go to tikicentral.
This subculture has its specialists, too. Some focus on drinks, or music, or mugs, or vintage clothing or ephemera. Then there’s Phil Roberts, who spent 17 years focused on documenting the whereabouts of every tiki he could possibly find in Honolulu. He put it all in a book that came out in 2010, Waikiki Tiki.
“Yeah, everybody thought I was crazy,” he says. “But I’m really proud of this book.”
There are also people like Doug Miller of Kona, who doesn’t just like to find tikis, he likes to bring them home—and not just little tikis he can put on a shelf. He’s got tikis as big as he is standing in his living room, including a bowsprit tiki from a retired Kona booze-cruise and a fiberglass prop tiki from the Elvis Presley movie Clambake.
He won’t bring home just any tiki, though. “They’ve got to have good personalities,” he says. And he recoils at the idea of ever letting a genuine Polynesian artifact through his door. “Those belong in the Bishop Museum,” he says. “I won’t touch that stuff. I only want the fake stuff—the fake-real stuff.”
Because, of course, if it’s not fake-real, it’s not really tiki.