tiki bar closed due to covid-19 pandemic

Helping Tiki Bars Survive the Pandemic

“We rise by lifting others.”

-Robert G. Ingersoll

As we near the 9th month of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’re reaching a very pivotal point. There’s been a lot of ebb and flow since life as we knew it changed completely, and the news about the direction we’re headed (not a very good one) has me thinking about a few things I feel I need to share.

Although my household has been fortunate to work from home, there are so many people who simply aren’t able to do that. Many of these people we know work in the hospitality and service industry, or are stakeholders in local restaurants and bars we frequented pre-pandemic.

Over the last 9 months, I’ve seen story after story about places here in SoCal, back home in Dallas, and all over the country that permanently closed because of the pandemic’s devastating economic impact. It’s especially jarring when they’re places that were around a long time and considered historic, local treasures.

A Precarious Time for Tiki Bars

Talk to anyone in the Tiki community, and they’ll probably have a Tiki bar they frequent that’s like their version of “Cheers”—everyone knows your name, and every visit involves imbibing in a drink or two, with a little friendly banter on the side.

Tiki-Ti in Los Feliz, CA
The Tiki-Ti, my personal “Cheers” (photo by Elizabeth Daniels)

True Tiki bars are a labor of love. They’re typically owned and managed by people who care, not corporations, which is why they’re successful in building a real following among their patrons and standing the test of time. They also require a very high level of commitment by owners who want to build relationships as well as business.

It’s scary when I think about how many of our beloved Tiki establishments are suffering right now and trying hard to stay open, if they’re allowed to even be open at all. Between ever-changing local health regulations and trying to keep staff safe, it’s got to be a fucking nightmare to even operate.

Every time I’ve had a conversation about this with a bar owner, I learn more about how hard it is. Staff concerns, layoffs, takeout and dine-in rules, enhanced cleaning procedures, paying bills…the list is endless.

Worrying Signs and Frustration

Martin and Rebecca Cate of Smugglers Cove in San Francisco laid their frustrations bare for an SFGate article back in July, which was heartbreaking to read. And Ed Rudisell of Inferno Room fame in Indianapolis also echoed similar sentiments in an interview for Indianapolis Monthly. Both are hanging on, but just barely, and assistance funds only go so far.

Then came the news that Max’s South Seas Hideaway, arguably one of the most impressive Tiki establishments to open in recent years, filed for bankruptcy, less than one full year after its opening. I know many of us haven’t been able to visit yet, which is a tragedy, given how much work Mark put into it.

Max's-Tiki-Grand-Rapids-MI
Max’s South Seas Hideaway (photo from website)

Some, like SoCal favorites the Tiki-Ti and the Tonga Hut, have remained closed since the start of the pandemic. Others, like False Idol, Latitude 29, 4 Kahunas, and Trader Vic’s Atlanta have either only recently opened, or have opened and been forced to close once again after case spikes. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the outdoor space to serve, and even when you do, if you don’t serve food, you often get shafted.

A Rallying Cry for Tikiphiles

More than ever, our Tiki establishments depend on us to help them survive. Unfortunately, I don’t think the pandemic will ever really stop being an issue until there’s a vaccine and accessible treatment options. Sadly, wearing masks and distancing have been politicized to the point of no return, so if we want our beloved places to survive, we need to help where we can.

Some things you can do:

  • If your favorite bars have merch, buy it. For some that are closed, it’s the only money they might have coming in for a while.
  • If they have takeout or delivery, order from them when you’re able, but PLEASE don’t use third party delivery apps like Doordash or GrubHub (these kill small businesses).
  • Donate to their staff fundraisers if they have them.
  • If they’re open and you feel comfortable, visit them and tip well.

Oh, and don’t be that guy (or girl or whatever) who pitches a fit about their mask policies. You might not care if you get sick, but the staff has a right to not be put at risk. One industry friend told me this past weekend that a recent group of out-of-towners balked at their mask policies, saying, “We didn’t have to wear them at the last place we went to.” Um, are you fucking kidding me?

With the holidays fast approaching, now is the time to be generous if you’re in the position to be so. One of the things I love about our Tiki community is how much we care about one another and lift our friends up when they need us. If you’re not in the position to financially support, share their social posts. We must support our local haunts in any way we can, or they may not be around much longer.

Tonga Hut interior
C’mon…do it for Big Mo. (photo by Christina Champlin)

20 Years of The Book of Tiki – Reflections With Author Sven Kirsten (Part 1)

It’s hard to have a conversation about Tiki without bringing up Sven Kirsten. An integral figure in the modern Tiki revival, Sven helped bring an artistic style to the forefront that hadn’t really been given a name or even a place in American pop culture history. Through years of immersing himself in urban archaeology, Sven carefully documented Tiki in the mid-20th century and laid out his findings in the now-famous tome, The Book of Tiki, released 20 years ago this month.

The Book of Tiki with the 20th anniversary mug designed by SHAG

Sure, we all love the cocktails and have all likely enjoyed a Mai Tai or two (or three) from time to time, but the cocktails are only one small part of Tiki. Escapism wasn’t achieved through the drinks alone. There was art, architecture, advertising, media, music, and so much more that captured the American imagination. During a time when air travel wasn’t accessible to everyone, Tiki allowed people to travel to a faraway land without having to go very far at all. 

Sven at the Tiki Apartments, 2013 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

Tiki nearly disappeared completely during the 80s, with many Polynesian Pop destinations meeting with either all-out closure or the wrecking ball. Others were renovated by proprietors eager to distance themselves from the style. But diehard fans unearthed it through underground meetups and urban archaeology. Thanks to the work of Kirsten and notables such as Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Otto von Stroheim, Tiki slowly began to re-emerge. And in September of 2000, The Book of Tiki was published.

Sven Kirsten and Martin Denny with The Book of Tiki
Sven and Martin Denny, the King of Exotica, 2003 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

I sat down with Sven recently to talk a little bit about how the book came to be, and ask a few burning questions of my own in a two-part series. Enjoy!


RM: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned you shopped The Book of Tiki to various publishers and were turned down left and right. Taschen eventually took you up on it — do you know or can you speculate as to why they bit when no one else would? 

SK: Well, my attempts to find a publisher came in waves. I have this quote-unquote famous rejection letter from Chronicle Books from 1992. At that time, Chronicle Books did a lot of cool things on Americana. 

I think they were the first to publish Jim Heimann’s California Crazy and they did Googie [by Alan Hess]. These are books that were influential to my generation of urban archaeologists and mid-century modernism lovers. So I tried Chronicle, and they turned me down. Then I tried Abrams and several other – at the time – happening art book publishers on the East Coast, and there we go. 

At that point in time, the whole publishing business and world was really concentrated around New York. And again, we had the problem that people in New York had Trader Vic’s, they had the Hawaii Kai stuff, but it was not like on the west coast — they didn’t get it. They didn’t get that it was a whole culture. Actually, Chronicle, I remember — the editor that rejected it said there was too much on too small of a subject. They just didn’t see how pervasive it had been even though I think I showed that in my proposal. The proposal, by the way, had the complete lineup of chapters very much the same way that it actually was published in the Book of Tiki years later. So, you know, I had it all together in my mind. 

Beginning in the late nineties, Taschen books were in stores all over Germany already. And I really liked their stuff, and my friends started telling me, “Why don’t you try Taschen Books?” But in the late 90s, they still were a European publisher — they hadn’t come to the United States. And I always felt like, I want this pop culture to be rediscovered in America first, and then it will, like all other kinds of pop trends, spread out to Europe and to Japan and stuff. So I said, “No, yeah, Taschen does great books, but…” And then when I heard that Benedikt Taschen [Taschen’s founder] was moving to Los Angeles, that’s when I decided maybe I should try it. 

It just so happened that Pete Moruzzi knew the Swiss architect Frank Escher, who was renovating the Chemosphere for Benedikt Taschen. So it was a shoo-in. I gave Pete my proposal, he gave it to Frank Escher, and Frank gave it to Benedikt, and you know, it was the beginning phase of Taschen in America. They were actually looking for material, so it was just the right time and the right place. 

I always tell the story of how Benedikt came over just to show what a workaholic he is. He actually called me and said, “I want to come over and look at some more of your stuff on January 1st.” I mean, who’s working on January 1st? [Laughs] I said, “Of course, yes, that’s no problem,” and I pulled out all my files and all my slides and I had stacks of them, and he actually leafs through everything. 

Chicago expedition for The Book of Tiki (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

You could tell that he was scanning everything and he was not only looking for quality; what he was looking for was quantity, because that really is a mark of his books — they’re not only beautiful books, but they’re so full of stuff…they’re so thick. So he was basically checking [to see] if I had enough material to make a book. And then he said, “Yeah, I think we can do this.”

RM: Part of understanding and identifying certain elements of Tiki style depends on having knowledge of the art of regions that inspired it. Where have you traveled in the Pacific Islands that helped you gain some of that knowledge?

SK: I have to backpedal from that, because people used to ask me that about when I wrote for Tiki News before the book came out. Like, “Where in Polynesia have you been?” The whole point I was trying to make is, “I haven’t been to Polynesia.” Actually, until the 90s, when I was deep into the whole subject matter, I had not been to Hawaii yet.

So I was saying as kind of a joke that you don’t need to go to Polynesia, because it’s all here. And that’s what I’ve tried to explain to people, because during the heyday of Tiki there was complete confusion about it. It wasn’t recognized as an American art form. People were left in the belief that these Tikis actually came from the islands, and carvers like Milan Guanko, because he was Filipino as you know, were from the islands.

Of course, it was all make-believe – supposed to be a Hawaiian or a Polynesian paradise, but confusion persisted even when I was collecting Tiki in swap meets or flea markets. Dealers did that to try to talk up the value of their Tikis – kept on saying they’re from the islands. [Laughs] I didn’t correct them because nobody had realized that this was an art form in its own right. 

In the late 90s and early 2000s, I went to Hawaii for a while almost every year. It was just mind-blowing, and I did go to existing temple sites, but I also noticed that there was very little American Tiki culture left in Hawaii, and what I could find was often very authentic, because in the birthplace of the culture, people had to be more careful about how they produced carvings and stuff.

Here on the mainland, people were freer and not so chained to the originals, and that’s what made it interesting to me. I have no interest in seeing exact copies of ancient art. That’s not creative. What was creative to me was how Americans on the mainland reinterpreted the culture, and that’s where I saw the artistic genius.

Sven Kirsten beside a Tiki at Oceanic Arts
Sven discovers Oceanic Arts, 1989 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

One of the greatest rewards of my publishing of the Book of Tiki was in 2001, I think, or 2002. I got a job as a lecturer on the freighter Aranui that went from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. I put together five lectures on Gauguin, Marquesan culture. At the time, to get back to your original question, I started studying the different Tiki styles, and one of my best guides was the Covarrubias map of the art styles of the Pacific. And that made me realize that each island group had their own style, and they were not necessarily all called Tikis – only in the Marquesas and in New Zealand. 

But in America, they all got sort of thrown together into this happy family of the Tikis, being from any island.

Art Forms of the Pacific by Jose Miguel Covarrubias

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of my interview with Sven Kirsten, which will go up later this week. Thanks so much for reading!

Tiki & the Cultural Appropriation Debate: Pt. 2

“Taken out of context, I might seem so strange.”

-Ani DiFranco

If anyone had told me the last article I wrote would inspire a lot of reactions, I’d have probably laughed. I don’t write for any other reason than to express my own feelings; changing people’s minds about stuff is folly and not something I’m interested in.

However, given what’s happened since then, I felt I need to delve a little deeper into some of the topics I discussed. Buckle up, because this one’s longer than the last one, folks.

Pop Culture vs. Authentic Culture

One of the things that inspired some negative feedback was why I would say Tiki was “inauthentic”. So, let’s start by unpacking that statement.

When I think of American pop culture in general, authenticity doesn’t come to mind. And Tiki is known as Polynesian Pop because it was a creation of American pop culture (which is usually inauthentic) that had Polynesian cultural elements. So this is what we’ll call it in this article, to avoid confusion. Polynesian Pop as a singular facet of pop culture may have not itself been authentic, but that doesn’t mean the cultures that inspired it weren’t authentic. 

Donn Beach is credited as the “Father of Tiki culture” in a lot of contemporary media, as if he concocted the notion in his head (which is false). The bar he opened in 1933 was a actually a nautical-themed bar, rather than what many people know to be a “Tiki” bar. He filled his bar with real objects he collected in his various travels, the hallmark of pre-Tiki “beachcomber style” of decorating with found objects.

The writer of this article back in March of 2019 asked if anyone really knew what “Tiki” (Polynesian Pop) is. And this indicates to me that there’s a lack of understanding of what it is among contemporary cocktail culture/food writers (there are many other examples). Maybe people don’t realize that real “Tiki culture” doesn’t revolve around cocktails – I’m not really sure.

Polynesian Pop’s history is important if we’re to understand what it is or begin to contextualize it. But research is necessary in order to do that, and I feel some people who have recently attempted to write about it have failed in this respect, even though there are resources out there that discuss and define it in depth.

Colonialism and Characterizations

Let’s get this out of the way: Colonialism by Europeans and Americans absolutely was responsible for a lot of suffering, hardship, and loss for many Pacific Islanders. A lot of people in our community, especially those who have been a part of it for a long time, are very conscious of this and acknowledge Polynesian Pop would likely not exist had it not been for the U.S. military occupation of the islands in the Pacific.

I also agree a result of this is the inaccurate characterizations of its people. Personally, I don’t go for imagery of the noble savage or the island girl as they were portrayed in the past. The island girl was either a submissive flirt or a temptress who led you to your doom with a swivel of her hips. As a woman, I find these examples of island girl iconography to be unappealing, as they closely mirror how I’ve experienced characterization of women in my own culture.

Someone asked me if my use of the word “primitive” didn’t feed into the stereotype of the “noble savage”. There are several definitions for the term “primitive” with different connotations, depending on how it’s used. The one that most closely aligns with how I define it is “Not derived” (meaning it is original), so I just wanted to clarify this. Nonetheless, I recognize the concept of Pacific Islander men as “savages” is an incredibly dumb stereotype.

Both characterizations were designed to appeal to bored housewives and wound-up husbands to titillate their senses. They don’t do anything for me, so I don’t consume them. Curiously, the island girl remains popular, which may be because her characterization has changed a bit as women gain a higher level of empowerment. Not saying I know this for sure – just hypothesizing.

The Tiki Consumer, Then and Now

I had a discussion with some peers recently, and I reiterated a statement I made in my last post – that Tiki/Polynesian Pop was a product of its times. And yes, I realize “Nazis were a product of their time” too, but that assumes I’m making a totally different point. My point is the consumer landscape isn’t the same today as it was in the mid-20th century. During that time, our nation wasn’t exactly known to consider how marginalized groups may have felt enough to be conscious and responsible in their choices.

Polynesian Pop was born out of a desire for escapism. Mid-century folks escaped from the shackles of expectations to be good Americans, married with 2.5 kids, living in tract housing, and keeping up with the Joneses. Fast forward to now, and you’re seeing a lot of people escaping from an increasingly divided and volatile nation where conflict of some kind is all but inevitable. It’s a very human reaction. 

It’s the addition of the vintage mid-century art and design aesthetic that makes Polynesian Pop unique. And while many of us, like those that came before us, enjoy that very much, it doesn’t mean we blindly accept the cultural insensitivity from those times that led to exploitative characterizations and stereotypes.  

Being Constructive to be Productive

“Cancel culture” has been a big buzzword over the last couple of years, and I recently read an article about how the move toward censoring certain things deemed problematic potentially strips us of our ability to both understand and interpret culture in various forms. In it, the author offered an analysis of the “implications” of HBO’s decision to air a disclaimer before re-adding Gone with the Wind to its rotation:

“First, the simple fact of the material power of platforms to remove whatever book, film, image or piece of music is deemed ‘problematic’ at any time; second, the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to read the cultural products that we are permitted to access; and, third, that the consumers of culture cannot be trusted to think for themselves, but must be told or shown how to understand images, words and sounds.”

The third one struck a nerve, because I read Gone with the Wind as a teenager and saw the film, and fully understood their mistreatment of Black people and glamorization of the “plantation life”. No one had to tell me how to consume or process them for me to come to that conclusion. So I wonder: Is this what awaits us all before we’re presented with any thorny pop culture piece? 

I think we build more good will, empathy, and unity when we trust each other more with respect to this. As I previously mentioned, we have awesome people in the Polynesian Pop community who are open, welcoming, and aware. But not all of them feel comfortable with dialog, for fear they will be promptly asked to take several seats for saying anything at all. Can’t say I blame them.

Borrowing and Giving Back

The idea of Polynesian Pop giving back to the cultures it drew inspiration from is completely reasonable. I think this is something newer generations can certainly do that prior generations didn’t do. And it can still be done in a way that maintains the unique Polynesian Pop art/design aesthetic, but also benefits Oceanic cultures and lifts their voices. But saying things need to change isn’t enough – tangible solutions are needed.

It would be great for people who represent those cultures to have forums to share the various aspects of said cultures that makes them unique. These discussions can be held at Tiki-themed events or bars and be sponsored by a spirit company. Inviting indigenous artists to share their art at some of our shows is another thing I’d enjoy. There are also various charities that work to lift up Pacific Islanders that could benefit from some of raffles we like to put on from time to time.

Note: I’m NOT offering some sort of prescription to a problem. These are just small ideas that might spark further ideas that can come to fruition down the road.

Why Critical Thinking Matters

As we create dialog, I think it’s important to remember we’re individuals capable of critical thinking and rational decision-making. Being part of a group we identify with is great and part of a life well-lived, but there will be those within our groups whose feelings differ. Otherwise, it’s just an echo chamber. If Polynesian Pop has community members who are Pacific Islanders and enjoy it for reasons only they can provide (because there are), will their voice matter, too? Or as much?

Someone recently asked me if someone’s comfort in enjoying something popular is more important than the exploitation of another culture. As far as Polynesian Pop is concerned, I can’t answer those questions. Those are for Pacific Islanders in both camps (for and against) to discuss. So instead, I’ll answer as it applies to me.

When I see interpretations of my culture, I don’t take them at face value. Instead, I consider context. I’m not very easily offended by interpretations of my own culture, because in spite of all the racism my family has been subjected to, my mother taught me to ask questions first, and draw my own conclusions after really gaining an understanding of the whys and hows. And if I don’t like what someone is doing, I won’t give them my time, attention, or money.

The Litmus Test

If you read my last article, you might remember the question I posed about whether or not it would be acceptable for me to open a Chinese restaurant as a non-Chinese POC. One person asked if I did this and featured only “random Asian food”, if I wouldn’t be playing into the stereotype (though I’m not sure exactly which stereotype – there’s a lot of them).

It seems a more acceptable route would be to open a Sichuan restaurant, use indigenous ingredients and cooking methods, donate to a relevant cause, and educate the public about that culture.

At face value, I don’t have a problem with this at all whatsoever, and I think it’s a great idea. What does concern me is the idea of establishing a cultural litmus test that measures one’s moral compass. Logically, what I’d imagine is there’s an agreed-upon, established list of rules that must be adhered to, and that there’s also an agreed-upon authority enforcing them. But because there are others in a culture who may disagree on the validity of an act of cultural exchange/expression, then who gets to administer this test? What happens if I don’t “pass”?

The People and Future of Polynesian Pop

When people say “Tiki jumped the shark”, I emphatically agree. As real examples of Polynesian Pop become more popular (and harder to come by), it seems like just about anything that’s tropical-themed passes as Tiki. And yes, I definitely feel this is a huge part of the problem, because it’s caused the whole thing to become muddied with Parrot/Geeki/Clown/Party City Tiki. Most of that is very far removed from the original Polynesian Pop aesthetic. When something becomes popular, you don’t have to try as hard anymore.

There seems to be a perception that Polynesian Pop’s longest-running enthusiasts are just a bunch of gatekeeping white men who think Oceanic peoples should be glad the white man came around to give them visibility. That’s a pretty broad brush to paint with. When I look at the people that make up the world of Polynesian Pop, that’s not what I see. I see a myriad of diverse, compassionate and culturally conscious individuals, young and old, who appreciate the vintage aesthetic without the more troubling vintage mindset and values.

As a centrist, I feel this is not a debate or argument to be won. But I believe it’s up to consumers to critically think in the face of cultural interpretation to find context and meaning. Do I think we can support the issues that Polynesian people continue to face? Definitely. Do I feel it requires Polynesian Pop to be totally remade or burned to the ground? No. There are too many gray areas and voices at play to simplify this topic to where people feel forced to choose a side. I’m in favor of a balanced approach that doesn’t attempt to erase a part of pop culture history and educates consumers simultaneously, so we can think for ourselves and make better decisions than those who came before us.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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!