Tiki And The Cultural Appropriation Debate

As we push to reform the way we handle the systemic racism that continues to plague our country, one of the most prevalent topics right now is cultural appropriation, a topic to which Tiki is no stranger.

This conversation has come up several times, with eager Eater writers publishing articles about it here and there that people would get into heated debates over. But rarely would the discussion go much deeper than that.

The reason I’m writing this is to ask some important questions and offer a slightly different perspective on Tiki. I spent many years hopping from one “scene” to another, trying to find one that aligned with my identity as a person and where as a POC, I’d feel welcome and free to be myself.

In the end, I found Tiki was for me, so much more than a scene. It was a truly fascinating culture I felt inspired me and brought out the best in me, even. And it also gave me a desire to learn more about the authentic cultures that inspired it, which has enriched my life even more. So I thought I’d take a moment to respond to some of the debate surrounding Tiki, referring to what I know about it and how I experience it.

The Purposeful Inauthenticity of Tiki

Tiki, or Polynesian Pop, is a manufactured culture. It never really tried to be authentic, because that wasn’t the purpose of it. It can’t be equated with authentic cultures that actually exist, because there really is no comparison.

Tiki is a product of its times, and many contemporary social justice warriors are calling its entire existence into question, with some even saying it should be eradicated in order to make up for its past transgressions.

It’s easy to paint Tiki with the cultural appropriation brush because of some of the iconography it uses. But let’s ask a few questions first.

Do we have a true understanding of what it is and what it isn’t? Do we understand that the “authenticity” people say it lacks was never meant to be there? Do we understand the reason Tiki has an amalgamation of artistic styles is because of this? And do we understand the unintended consequences that could happen if we just take Tiki and try to make it something it’s not?

Before we make arguments about Tiki, we must be aware of the fact that it, unlike other world cultures, has no realness to it because it is a different culture all its own that borrows from primitive art as well as modernism. In The Book of Tiki, Sven Kirsten offers the following quote by Pablo Picasso:

“You don’t need to get the masterpiece to get the idea. The concept or component of a style is entirely accessible in second-rate examples and even fakes.”

Not everyone is going to understand this or agree with it. But this statement embodies the very spirit of what makes Tiki as it existed in the mid-20th century, what it is.

How Being a POC Impacts my View of Tiki

I honestly wonder if, in general, some people assume that a POC will get offended when they see any representation of their culture somewhere outside of where they might traditionally expect to find it (such as in their country of origin or in their homes and communities). I say this, because with so much backlash against cultural appropriation, it seems as if even appreciation now means you’ve crossed the line of appropriation and is therefore, inappropriate.

I’m a left-leaning immigrant who’s lived in a conservative border state nearly all her life. I’ve seen examples of both appreciation and appropriation and learned to look at them critically over time. If we look at cultural appropriation as a totally black and white issue, then a lot of the things we’ve come to enjoy might not be allowed to exist anymore.

I’ve gone to who-knows-how-many Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants and bars, and a lot of them play Latinx music, have employees with uniforms that contain Mexican or South American-style embroidery, and are festooned with papel picado, terra cotta pottery, and even statues with images of Aztec or Olmec idols. 

None of this really bothers me when it’s presented tastefully. I rather enjoy it, actually. I understand that sometimes, these places are inspired by true Latin culture and cuisine, but aren’t authentic and weren’t really meant to be. That doesn’t make me lose sleep at night.

I tend to look at Tiki the same way. My personal preference is to see examples of Tiki that I find more aesthetically pleasing and true to what it is. This is why I’m greatly annoyed with “Clown Tiki” or “Party City Tiki” or whatever you want to call it. When I see cheap day-glo representations of Polynesian idols, I cringe. As inauthentic as mid-20th century Tiki is, you’d be hard-pressed to find garbage like some of the stuff out there today.

White Proprietorship and Cultural Stewardship

Many of the great Tiki establishments of the mid-20th century were run by white men. Donn Beach, Vic Bergeron, Stephen Crane, Bob and Jack Thornton…the list goes on. Sadly, back in those days, it was even harder than it is now to be a POC and own a business (and we all know it’s still hard even today). But even they managed to give real Oceanic art a prominent place in their bars and restaurants. Their menu descriptions of the decor, cuisine, and drinks were fanciful to the point of cheesiness, but the cheesiness was the point.

There have been instances where businesses that serve non-American cuisine get called out even today and shamed simply for being non-POC business owners that serve ethnic cuisine instead. Many of their critics claim POCs should be the only ones profiting off their cultures, not white people. And again, I get it. When you have such a well-documented history of non-POC who have profited off of other cultures in some way, I can totally understand why this can be problematic and why there is a call for more support of POC-owned endeavors.

But that leads me to the following questions. For example, if I didn’t really care for Mexican food and was in love with Chinese food instead, would I get the same backlash if I opened a Chinese restaurant and installed artistic elements of Chinese culture in my establishment? At face value, would I be appropriating too if I was inspired enough to do this? Or would people give me a pass because I’m a POC even though I’m not Chinese? 

I worry about us going down a slippery slope by forbidding others of another culture from expressing their inspiration in ways such as the one mentioned above. If we end up playing keep-away with any culture just because we weren’t born into it, how do we appreciate it?

Are we going to ask people to be mere observers like in a museum? Or are we going to take active roles in helping others experience our cultures in a meaningful and positive way? I would hate to see authentic cultures become commodities we possess like objects.

Personally, I don’t feel your color or ethnicity matters if you wish to create something that’s inspired by another culture. What matters most to me is how you execute it.

Mid-century Tiki and its Contributions

Sven Kirsten’s books do a marvelous job of cataloging Tiki’s history, timeline and contributions. In these books, I’ve discovered that from architecture to wood carvings to artwork, there is no denying some pretty amazing things came from it. In addition, there were plenty of artists who were influenced and inspired by Oceanic art. Eli Hedley, Barney West, Milan Guanko…most of us know their names and their work. Their work adorned places like the Mai-Kai, Aku-Aku, and Trader Vic’s, to name a few. And I’m only scratching the surface here. 

Exotica and Hawaiian music also took center stage during the mid-20th century, with many artists creating sounds using unorthodox instruments and sometimes their own voices to create a truly unique experience outside the mainstream. Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and Les Baxter are the ones most Tikiphiles know, but there are SO many others. For me, Exotica was a gateway to learning more about real, authentic Hawaiian music.

And then, there’s the cocktails. Although it was mainly white men who held proprietorship status, the cocktails were the work of their bartenders, who were mostly Filipino. These wonderful concoctions are still celebrated today for their balance, complexity, and taste. These drinks live on, and so now does the legacy of men like Ray Buhen, Mariano Licudine, Tony Ramos, and “Popo” Galsini, who documented these treasured recipes that Jeff “Beachbum” Berry eventually helped re-introduce. 

When I hear some people say Tiki needs to be “cancelled”, it makes me sad, because to me, it feels like a knee-jerk reaction that could have unintended consequences. Does cancelling it mean that revival artists like Bosko or Tiki Diablo can’t carve Tikis anymore or use Polynesian iconography no matter how tastefully done? And if not totally cancelled, what exactly is the goal, then? What is the solution here, and is there one?

Looking Toward the Future

Even without the debate over cultural appreciation, Tiki is currently experiencing a de-evolution of sorts, and we’ve gotten to the point where every bar with palms and monstera leaves is a Tiki bar, and every sculptural vessel you can drink out of gets passed as a Tiki mug. Clown Tiki is easy to get and cheap to buy, which some people love because it gives them the illusion of being a part of the latest fad without really learning anything. And when everything is Tiki just because “it’s fun and whatever you want it to be”, then nothing is truly Tiki anymore.

I love to refer to a certain South Park episode (which you might remember if you’re late Gen Z or an early Millennial) called “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo”. In this episode, the citizens of South Park are up in arms over the elementary school Christmas pageant because it excludes other religions. After each person who complained got their way, the pageant was rendered a meaningless, bland production with weird Philip Glass music that everyone absolutely hated, leading to another fight, with everyone blaming one another because everything was totally ruined.

As an atheist, I find it funny this episode sticks out to me so much, but it outlines my point that political correctness, when taken too far, ends up scrubbing our cultural landscape and rendering us a gray, flavorless society.

All this having been said, here are my most burning questions:

  1. Is it understood that Tiki was never meant to be correct from a historical standpoint?
  2. If yes, why make it “correct”? What purpose will that serve?
  3. Should an authentic culture exclude anyone outside that culture from a stewardship role and/or dialog exchange about it? Why or why not?
  4. If we accept that all Tiki is cultural appropriation and should be gotten rid of, what precedent does that set for other cultural interpretations?
  5. How should others who are inspired by other cultures proceed if it spurs their creativity? Is there a litmus test they are going to be subjected to when that creativity is manifested in some form?
  6. What should Tiki enthusiasts do with their collections and at a larger scale, their love and passion for Tiki as a pop culture?

I’m not opposed to educating people about indigenous Oceanic cultures, their history, and their struggles. In fact, I welcome it. Without these cultures to draw inspiration from, Tiki would have never existed. Frankly, I think some people could use a little history lesson at some of these Tiki events so at the very least they can correctly identify some of the idols whose faces adorn their carvings, mugs, and art. Education also builds empathy, which is important if people are going to be taught to care about anyone or anything other than themselves.

However, I feel it’s still important to demarcate true, authentic Polynesian cultures from the artificial, exaggerated culture that is Tiki. There are various individuals that can speak to this difference VERY effectively, and I think most of us in the Tiki community know who those individuals are.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for giving a shit about this girl’s opinions. All I’ve provided here are my own feelings and perspective as a non-Oceanic POC. We don’t have to agree on how to view Tiki, but we should at least agree to disagree respectfully when those views don’t align.

How I Learned to Love Quarantine

How fast things can change in a week.

I sometimes think this when I look at the world I lived in and how I felt about it a week ago compared to now. Like many others, I’m in a self-imposed quarantine of sorts with, thankfully, my beloved Brian by my side. To say I’m grateful for his presence would be the understatement of all time.

It’s so easy to let my anxiety take over (which it has definitely threatened to do) because of how powerless the situation around me makes me feel. To the vast majority of the human population, the unknown is a colossal dick. So it’s only natural we’d flip out at what’s happening now.

I’ve definitely experienced grief. Right now, I grieve for the world around me, I grieve for the people who don’t get the luxury of staying home because we need them, I grieve for my friends who are suddenly finding themselves in a position of financial hardship, I grieve because I can’t see my elderly parents back home in Texas…the list goes on. Grief looks different for lots of people, so I thought I’d share my journey and where it’s led me to now.

I was initially incredulous at the thought of a pandemic causing this much upheaval. It was one of many who was guilty of feeling like it wouldn’t affect us the way it did. When it finally started creeping into my way of life, I was angry. Angry at the virus, angry at the spreaders, angry at the hoarders…you get the idea.

Then came the “if onlys”. “If only we’d taken this seriously sooner”, “If only our healthcare system was better equipped”, “If only we had a leader who knew what he was doing.” There are so many fucking if onlys. Guys, don’t think about them too much, or you’ll never get out of that rabbit hole, FYI.

Several days ago, I experienced my first bout of real depression. I was depressed at the thought of watching our retirement savings dwindle, the thought of my parents possibly becoming infected, the healthcare system finally collapsing, the thought of more and more people succumbing to the virus…holy shit, it was intense at times. But to my surprise, it didn’t last long at all.

It’s hard not to feel an impending sense of doom when you read the news or even go on social media, because all anyone can talk about is the virus, how it’s affecting everything, and how the world will basically shit on itself if we do nothing. But as the crisis deepened, I started to see signs…signs of hope, unity and good will.

“Innovation is born out of necessity.” I love that quote. And I am seeing proof of it everywhere I look. People are using their creativity and knowledge to come up with ways to help or enrich the lives of others. From people trying to make masks for healthcare workers to virtual concerts, classes and happy hours, our humanity is peeking like a slit out of our collective skirt of self-absorbance.

Earlier this week, a neighbor brought me kidney beans and canned tomatoes out of kindness, because every place I’d tried was sold out, and all I wanted was to make a pot of chili. Another friend messaged me today to see if we needed any toilet paper because he’d found some on his way home. I’m seeing communities come together to support their bars, restaurants, and other local businesses that have seen their revenue streams cut. And it’s giving me hope.

We are capable of so much good. We really are. I have a pretty fair amount of cynicism in me, but I’d like to believe that we’ll find ways to lift each other up during this time of extreme sacrifice and strife. Yes, even in spite of how shitty we humans are sometimes.

When I woke up yesterday, I looked out my window and saw a little hummingbird flitting around our trees, pausing here and there. I was completely mesmerized by it. It was like time stopped at that moment. When it flew away, I finally snapped out of my daze.

And it really hit me – when we’re finally able to step outside our homes and slowly rebuild ourselves and our communities, I hope our overall feeling is similar to the one I felt at that moment. A feeling of wonder, hope, and renewed gratitude for the little things that pass us by every day without us noticing much. A heightened appreciation for the things and people we take for granted and think we’ll have tomorrow, next week or next year.

I’ve entered the last stage of my grief and accepted what is happening now – that we need to do the right thing so we can fight back against this virus. So we can all go hug our loved ones again, even tighter than before.

How fast things can change in a week. Stay hopeful, stay safe, and for the love of all things, please stay the fuck home.

Alexander Girard at the Palm Springs Art Museum

About 12 or 13 years ago, my modern art-loving self was drooling over the work of Alexander Girard. He came on to my radar because of his collaboration with Braniff International Airways, which I absolutely love but sadly doesn’t exist anymore. As far as modern design goes, I was still trying to keep up with the Eameses, and Girard was a breath of fresh air for me.

Girard’s Impact on Modernism

Girard’s aesthetic is happy and warm, which isn’t something you commonly see in traditional modern design. Minimalism is cool and all, but Girard draws me in because of the way he went against its stoicism. A lot of his work has Native American and Latin folk art flair, and you just can’t be in a bad mood after seeing it (well, at least I don’t think so).

Nonetheless, he was a very important part of the modernist movement. He was a master of interior design and worked on many commercial and home spaces, brightening them with his attention to color. Sitting in a room full of his designs could easily be a form of color therapy, in my totally unbiased, unprofessional opinion.

Getting My Girard Fix

I have a small collection of Girard items, including Braniff tchochkes I bought at estate sales or on eBay. I even have a huge Girard coffee table book that could easily moonlight as a deadly weapon. But when I found out I could finally see his work in-freakin’-person in Palm Springs, I about lost my shit.

I went with a couple of friends to check out the exhibit recently, and oh, man…it did NOT disappoint. I felt joy and anticipation at the mere sight of the entrance.

Abandon all sadness, ye who enter here.

The amount of Girard’s work on display is staggering. Along with his beautiful textile designs, I saw furniture, restaurant ware, drawings, films, and even dolls. All of it is colorful, fun, and good for your heart and soul.

My Girard Exhibit Highlights

There are a couple of sections that made my heart go pitter-patter. First was the body of work he did for the La Fonda del Sol restaurant in New York City. A sun motif accompanies much of the design work he did for it, which delights and inspires happiness. Seriously, if I could wake up to a canvas of a Girard sun with its happy face staring at me every day, I might not need coffee….well, maybe.

There is also a replica of Girard’s awesome conversation pit in the first room, which you can actually sit in and take the load off for a while. My friends and I enjoyed playing with the pillows in it, which all had Girard textile patterns. I could have easily napped there, but I think the docents would have frowned on that.

All the pillows, please!

Of course, I was over the moon to see Girard’s work for Braniff on display. It’s astounding how much he did for them – matchbooks, playing cards, coffee cups, even their dove logo! I was lucky enough to snag a pair of real Braniff flight attendant wings a few years ago, which I wore to the museum as a small way to pay tribute to how I found Girard and his work.

The iconic Braniff typography on display

Although Braniff’s flight attendant uniforms were not Girard creations, a couple of them made it into the exhibit. The Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci was responsible for these, and they were absolute perfection as a complement to Girard’s designs.

Girard and Pucci…a match made in modern design heaven

One of the coolest things on display in the Braniff section was a video ad for their “End of the Plain Plane” marketing campaign, which was sheer GENIUS. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in the room where that concept was birthed! The juxtaposition of the narrator’s deadpan delivery and the rich visual imagery in the video was kind of hilarious. But hey, that made it all the more effective! For those of you who can’t make the exhibit…take a look:

If you’re into modernism and can get to Palm Springs in the near future, you’ve got to see the Girard exhibit for yourself. I don’t feel he gets enough credit for the variety and quality of his life-affirming work, and more people (that means you) should explore it.

Want to plan a trip?

Yes, of course you want to see this awesome art!

The Alexander Girard exhibit runs through March 1st at the Palm Springs Art Museum, so start making those arrangements! Palm Springs itself is an amazing city with tons to do and see, so you won’t be bored…trust me!

Pro tip: If you’re the budget-conscious type, the museum offers free admission after 4:00 PM on Thursdays only. When you’re done, trot out to Villagefest, the weekly market in downtown Palm Springs. Lots of food, music, and good people-watching!

New Blog, New Direction

If you followed my previous blog called Adventures in Tiki, you may have seen a post alluding to my bringing it down. I decided to do so because writing only about Tiki wasn’t as fulfilling to me as it used to be. I’ve been wanting to expand on the content for a while and felt a little stifled because I felt I couldn’t do it without compromising on the original purpose of the blog.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Tiki, and it will continue to be a big part of this new blog I’ve created. But I also have a lot of cool experiences that sometimes might be Tiki-adjacent or not Tiki at all. These include visits to historically significant sites, cool homes, interesting food and drinks, and even personal stories I feel others could relate to.

With life (and therefore my mindset) being kind of on the shitty side lately, I stopped writing and internalized a lot of my thoughts. But recently, I started realizing how much I missed writing and being creative. I think it’s time to get back to that.

I’m also hoping I can up my writing game, because I looked back at some of the stuff I wrote for my old blog and was like, “Yikes, did I really write like that?” It was a bit of a cringefest reading through some of those old posts. But I’m my own worst critic, of course.

I want to thank everyone who read my previous blog and follows me on the socials. I’ve met tons of great new friends along the way, and I hope to continue doing that. I love sharing the badass stuff I’m lucky enough to see and do with all of you.

My new blog is a work in progress. A fully customized site (better than this one) is in the works. So please bear with me while I work on getting it ready. Nonetheless, I’ll still be writing, so watch for a new post soon!