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.