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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


For the Love of Tiki
by Leslie Rosenberg

This past weekend, retro culture connoisseurs from across the country gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for "Hukilau 2002", a three-day festival of all things tiki, featuring artists, artisans, performers, cocktails and cuisine. Visitors were treated to live music, attend lectures on the history of tiki culture, and a tiki bazaar of exotic wares that offerd a slice of Polynesia.

Tropical pop is all the rage, with tiki-themed books, housewares, and CDs showing up on store shelves nationwide. But those unfamiliar with the island aesthetic are left wondering, just what is tiki all about?

The trend started in 1934, when a man by the name of Don Beach, a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber, opened a Polynesian-themed eatery in Hollywood that was part tap house, part funhouse. There, guests could enjoy tropical Asian cuisine and exotic rum punches while surrounded by flaming torches, rattan furniture, flower leis and brightly colored fabrics. More than a decade later, a fellow named Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, adapted Don's formula for success and opened his own chain of tropical taverns, including locations in Oakland, San Francisco and Beverly Hills. Around this time, the soldiers were returning home from World War II, bringing with them stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific. Americans fell in love with their romanticized version of an exotic culture, and Polynesian design began to infuse every aspect of the country's visual aesthetic, from home accessories to architecture. The carved tiki head made its debut, and became emblematic of the Polynesian pop movement that flourished from the late 1940s through the early '70s. For a brief, glorious period in history, the tiki was king.

But sometime in the 1970s, the party ended—at least for a while. Tiki style became passť, as disco glitz swept the nation. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that a new generation of artists began to unearth the artifacts of an earlier era.

"Being a cinematographer, I was always into visual extremes, and I liked going to thrift stores in the '80s because you could still find [interesting] stuff," recalls Sven Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki. "Tiki mugs were considered ugly and something they wanted to get rid of, so you could pick them up for 50 cents or a dollar."

Over the next ten years, others began making the same discovery, and tiki wares gradually became coveted collectibles. Eventually, the mainstream media got wind of the trend, and the buzz about a lost art form began to grow.

"Tiki is part of that great big retro revival that pop culture is capitalizing on these days," says Shag, a.k.a. Josh Agle, whose career as a painter and illustrator flourished after he started creating works with a tiki motif. "There has been a big interest in mining the popular culture of past eras to inform and style the popular culture of today, and tiki fits in with that theme."

"Tiki will never get as big again as it was, because it was really a zeitgeist phenomenon in its time," adds Kirsten. "But today, it can work in the sense of fulfilling a need that is still there for exotic romance." We've grown jaded, he explains, and we know there is really no paradise on earth. But the rational realization of this does not negate the fact that we still have an emotional need for that ideal. "Tiki culture allows one to recreate that in your own backyard in a playful way. It doesn't have to be authentic, but it fulfills your need for romantic exoticism."

Couldn't we all use a vacation from reality once in a while?

The above article is an excerpt from "Paradise on Earth: America Rediscovers the Delights of Tiki Culture", which will appear in the Summer 2002 issue of ATOMIC. To read the full story, look for the issue on newsstands, or subscribe online right now!

Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

Dear Dottie
1999 Articles List
2000 Articles List
2001 Articles List
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TIKINEWS — A quarterly 'zine devoted to the preservation and promotion of tiki culture worldwide.

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TROPICAL TREASURES — From decorations to lighting to tableware, they've got everything you need to throw a luau in your own backyard!

SPACE AGE POP — The Web's most comprehensive guide to space age pop, exotica, lounge, and other cool music to set a tiki mood.

KAHALETKI — Online store for tiki-themed furniture, lamps, housewares, bedding, artwork, and sundry Hawaiiana.

ISLAND SHIRTS — Custom made Hawaiian shirts in men's sizes small to 6x-with authentic coconut or akoya buttons!



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