20 Years of The Book of Tiki – Reflections with Author Sven Kirsten (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part interview with The Book of Tiki author Sven Kirsten. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 here. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

RM: Nowadays, finding a copy of The Book of Tiki is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, and it’s looked at as the source most people consult when looking to learn about Tiki. How do you feel about its exalted status among Tikiphiles today?

SK: My whole goal to find the right publisher for The Book of Tiki was that Tiki culture gets recognized and becomes, you know, accepted in pop culture. And so I’ve always been a populist in the sense that I wanted the stuff to be available. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the say with my publisher to say, “Republish The Book of Tiki,” because whenever I did that there was already another book of my books out, the last one being Tiki Pop. I wish I had a new edition of The Book of Tiki for the 20th anniversary, but they (Taschen) just put out this great compact version of Tiki Pop

In a way, yeah, it’s not The Book of Tiki, but it [Tiki Pop] tells the complete history of Polynesian Pop and how it started before Tiki was around and then how it evolved into Tiki. And to have that available for 15 or 16 bucks –  it’s amazing, and I’m so happy about that. 

The Book of Tiki is really the initial charge that got that whole thing going, but I’m saying if you really want to know about what Tiki is and where it came from, Tiki Pop is just as good.

Tiki Pop, 1st edition

RM: In recent years, Tiki has become almost cocktail-centric, with much of the actual style that made it what it was relegated to the background. Originally, the cocktails were more of a complement to the experience rather than the focal point. What do you think can help the aesthetic stay relevant in modern times?

SK: Let’s go back to how the Tiki revival started: It was artists who picked up on the power of the forgotten Tiki image first. In the 90s, the “lowbrow” artists of the Pop Surrealism movement started to incorporate Tikis in their paintings, leading to several purely Tiki-themed exhibitions. Also, animation artists picked up on the theme, with shows like SpongeBob Squarepants.

The art is also what inspired me to dig deeper and unearth American Tiki culture. When I discovered the supplier Oceanic Arts in Whittier in the late 80s, it was their collection of menu covers, with their incredible Tiki graphics, that blew me away and made me think for the first time, “Someone should make a book about this!” In my books that followed, I have strived to reveal the incredible horn of plenty of American Tiki art, design and architecture.

Sven photographing the Kahlua Apartments, 1994 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

In that manner, the Tiki, the Polynesian god of the artists, manifested itself anew. He inspired a new generation of creatives to remake him in a myriad of forms and styles.

But pure art only goes that far in this world, one has to have a vein for it to begin with — not everybody does. Along came the craft cocktail revival, and, although snobbishly laughing off Tiki cocktails in the beginning, it eventually latched onto them, and they became its darling. 

Sven Kirsten and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry holding up Tiki mugs
Sven mugging it up with Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who pioneered the discovery of mid-century Tiki cocktail recipes (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

Again, a new generation of mixologists arose,  inspired by the intricacies of Tiki cocktails. They got so fixated on that one facet of Tiki culture, that eventually the word “Tiki” meant cocktail, nothing else, with the main core of its art and design becoming secondary accoutrements. Booze won over art.

Consequently, this not-understanding of the true spirit of Tiki makes it easy for some of them to now zealously recant and abandon Tiki style as offensive, the accusers ironically being ignorant of an art form that they accuse of ignorance.

RM: I know you’ve unearthed quite a bit of Tiki in the urban jungle that made it into the book. Did any one of those “A-ha!” moments stand out to you, or is there a favorite discovery you’ve made that you’re fond of?

SK: One of my most memorable discoveries in my Tiki research was the defunct “The Tikis” amusement park. It was a sunken civilization, with overgrown and toppled Tikis, just like what had happened to the ancient Polynesian Tiki temples. It was an urban archeologist’s dream come true.

Its builder, Danny Balsz, was a self-made man who built the whole lava land moonscape by hand, in his own vision. He had heard that the more Tikis you have, the more luck you have. The failure of it mirrored the fall of mid-century Tiki culture.

Sven and Otto von Stroheim at “The Tikis” in Lake Elsinore, 1994 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

I want to give a huge, heartfelt thanks to Sven for being willing to sit down with me for this interview. The world of Polynesian Pop is forever indebted to him for his tireless work in unearthing a very important piece of mid-century Americana. Congratulations to him and to The Book of Tiki!

Sven with The Book of Tiki 20th Anniversary mug

If you are on social media, be sure to keep an eye out for the new 20th anniversary Book of Tiki mug, a special collaboration between Sven, SHAG, and Holden Westland of Tiki Farm. And for those of you who are interested in Sven’s books, check out Amazon, as occasional copies of The Book of Tiki, Tiki Modern, The Art of Tiki, and the 1st edition of Tiki Pop (which are out of print) do show up from time to time. The smaller 2nd edition of Tiki Pop is available for a mere $16, though!

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