The word tiki most often refers to an enigmatic humanoid figure intended to represent the legend of the first man, deified ancestors, or other gods from the indigenous cultures in the South Seas. More broadly, tiki has come to encompass the entire history, art, and religion of the Oceania region—made up of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia—or how Westerners perceive and interpret that culture.
What we generally think of as a tiki is a product of American pop culture, originating in California, at “exotic” island-themed restaurants such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, which first opened in the 1930s. Both restaurants served elaborate rum punches, such as Zombies and Mai Tais, in ceramic mugs styled like tikis. The American craze for all things Polynesian exploded after World War II, when the men serving in the Pacific theater returned to the mainland. New mid-century “tiki” themed restaurants popped up all over the United States, serving similar fruity cocktails in mugs shaped like tikis, coconuts, bamboo sticks, animals, and volcanos, or featuring hula girls and palm trees in relief, usually with a paper umbrella on top.
Authentic ancient tikis were usually carved from wood or volcanic tuff. According to anthropologists, the tradition likely migrated from the Philippines to Micronesia (Palau, Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands) or Melanesia (New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia) to Polynesia (New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands, Easter Island, and Hawaii). Bent-knee big-headed tikis, which were sometimes used on boats as a symbol of one’s tribe, were often overtly sexual with large penises symbolizing fertility. A tiki grabbing his belly is a warrior honoring one’s heritage.
Some of the most copied tikis are the ancestral moai figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island. Of the 887 moai, the tallest is 33 feet, and most of them are about 16 feet tall and feature oversized heads 3/8ths the size of the whole figure. Many moai were discovered buried up to their shoulders, so moai tikis are often depicted as heads with deep eye slits, long noses with flared nostrils, sharp jaws, and thin, protruding lips.
Victorian explorers and traders who traveled to the South Seas were intoxicated with the island culture, which was wildly different from the industrialized societies in Europe and America. Exaggerated stories of undulating topless native dancers in leaf skirts and the simple life in a sunny tropical beach clime just fed the fascination. That didn’t stop missionaries from sailing to these islands to Christianize the residents.
Daniel McMullin, in his paper, “Tiki Kitsch, American Appropriation, and the Disappearance of the Pacific Islander Body” argues that Polynesians portrayed as objects of lust in Western works by Loti, Melville, and Gauguin depicted the people as, “abject objects, signs of colonized defeat, religious failure, and moral decay.” The story of the colonization of Easter Islands by Chile and Hawaii by the United States get glossed over in the cheerful mythology Westerners appropriated from these cultures.
Starting around the turn of the 20th century, the fantasy of the welcoming and comely hula girl was used in advertising promoting tourism and trade with the U.S. territory of Hawaii. By the 1920s, the Anglicized hula girl with a grass skirt and ukulele became a full-blown phenomenon in the mainland. As Americans began to vacation more, air travel to Hawaii, starting in the 1930s, only furthered the fantasy, leading to films like “Birds of Paradise, “Waikiki Wedding,” and “Down to Their Last Yacht.”...
A 24-year-old Southerner by the name of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt moved to Hollywood in 1931 after adventuring in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Surviving the Depression as a bootlegger, Gantt opened a pub called Don’s Beachcomber Cafe in 1934, which he decorated with Polynesian knick-knacks, fishing nets, and pieces of wrecked boats he’d scavenged from the South Pacific. In 1937, he moved the restaurant across the street and changed the name to Don the Beachcomber.
The food at Don the Beachcomber was actually gussied up Cantonese cuisine, and the joint was probably the first to serve the appetizer plate known as the “pu pu platter,” as well as crab rangoon and rumaki. Since rum was the cheapest spirit, Gantt began to invent all sorts of “exotic cocktails” such as the Sumatra Kula (sold for a quarter), the Zombie, Tahitian Rum Punch, Shark’s Tooth, Missionary’s Revenge, and Navy Grog. His restaurant quickly drew Hollywood celebrity clientele, like Howard Hughes, who is rumored to have hit and killed a pedestrian with his car after having too many Zombies. Still, the place became so iconic Gantt changed his name to Donn Beach.
Up in Northern California, an entrepreneur named Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. opened a pub called Hinky Dink’s in Oakland in 1934. Then in 1937, the spot took on a more tropical flavor in decor and menu and became Trader Vic’s, named after Bergeron, and the first Trader Vic’s franchise opened in Seattle in 1940.
Like Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s specialized in fruity rum cocktails, served in ceramic tiki-shaped mugs, which customers could take home as souvenirs. Both restaurant lay claim to creating the popular cocktail known as the Mai Tai, but each recipe is slightly different. Spurlin Ceramics in Lynwood, California made some of the first tiki mugs with distinct mottled glazes in yellowish-brown, avocado green, turquoise, and pink. Tepco (Technical Porcelain and China Ware Company) produced some of the earliest tiki mugs for Trader Vic’s.
A knock-off of the Beachcomber’s Zombie, whose recipe was a guarded secret, was served at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 also celebrated Polynesian culture. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed a U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pulling the United States into World War II. American soldiers serving the Pacific Theater often got a glimpse of Oceania island life and brought souvenirs and fond memories of the tropics when they returned home.
After the war, Polynesian- and tiki-themed restaurants—franchises of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, as well as hundreds of knock-offs—spread rapidly across the United States. In 1947, a Norweigian explorer named Thor Heyerdahl traveled from South America to the Polynesia Islands on a raft he named Kon-Tiki (after the Incan sun god, Viracocha) to prove an ancestral connection between the native cultures. He turned his journey into a popular book and feature film, both called “Kon-Tiki.”
Meanwhile, James Michener’s short story collection, “Tales From the South Seas,” became a 1949 hit musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. When the territory of Hawaii became a state in 1959, it only fueled the flames for these tropical-island fantasies.
Travelers and importers like Bob Carter in Whittier, California, who mastered Oceanic-style wood carvings in the 1920s, provided props for stage and film productions, as well as the decor of bars and restaurants. Carter mentored a young art student named Leroy Schmaltz, who joined with Bob Van Oosting in 1956, to form Oceanic Arts, one of the most influential workshops when it comes to developing what we now think of as tiki culture.
Schmaltz and Van Oosting traveled to Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Australia, and New Guinea, while Oceanic Arts provided props to Hollywood, decor for famous restaurants, and party favors for backyard luaus. Their products spanned from cheap and kitschy paper party decorations to ceramic tiki mugs, replicas of Oceanic native sculpture, and masks that often passed as authentic.
The firm created Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room, which opened in 1963, and the thatched-roof backdrop of “Gilligan’s Island,” which debuted in 1964. Oceanic Arts supplied sets for everything from an Otto Preminger film to “Saved by the Bell” and “Forrest Gump.” They decorated Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills and various Don the Beachcomber franchises, as well as The Royal Hawaiian in Laguna Beach, the Bali Hai in San Diego, and the Tiki Ti in Hollywood.
Other important mid-century tiki influencers include Steve Crane, who ran the high-profile 1950s Beverly Hills tiki restaurant Luau and the Sheraton chain hotel restaurant Kon-Tiki across the United States. Designer Florian Gabriel created beautiful, double-walled ceramic mugs for Crane’s restaurants. Paul Marshall Products made a peanut-like tiki mug, as well as salt and pepper shakers and other kitchenware.
Philippine-born Andres Bumatay was a well-known 1960s tiki carver in Southern California, who also created a mug for the Islander in Stockton, California, produced by Otagiri. Some companies like San Francisco’s Otagiri Manufacturing Company, or OMC, and Orchids of Hawaii, which often knocked off Otagiri and provided tiki mugs to many restaurants along the eastern seaboard, had their mugs produced in Japan. Desert Ceramics made many mugs for Don the Beachcomber.
Alec Yuill-Thornton designed the logo for Tiki Bob’s in San Francisco, which was turned into a tiki mug. Inspired by the African Fang mask style, this tiki resembled a beady-eyed owl sculpture carved into the trunk of a tree, and was widely copied. Libbey, Red Wing, Frankoma, Wedgwood, and other esteemed ceramics and glass companies also produced tiki mugs in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, tiki mugs were also sold as incomplete craft projects for hobbyists to paint and fire.
Tiki mugs have been made in a wide variety of designs including Hawaiian gods Ku or Kane; Menehune or mythical Hawaiian dwarf people; wahine, or woman; moai from Easter Island; Genghis Khan; Chinese male caricatures known as Fu Manchu; monkeys and other animals; tropical fruit like pineapple or coconuts; rum barrels; bamboo sticks; skulls; shrunken heads; and volcanoes (for large volcano-bowl cocktails). To promote tiki restaurants, tiki imagery was also used in souvenir statues made of resin, postcards, swizzle sticks, salt and pepper shakers, banks, bottles, lighters, matchbooks, ashtrays, and lamps.
Expressing concern over these caricatures, Daniel McMullin points out that tiki designs often “resemble, and often come in hybridized forms with, other American racist images including the wooden Indian mascot, the African American minstrel show, and the Asian coolie.” That said, Hawaii seemed to embrace Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber chains in the 1950s as “more Hawaii than Hawaii” experiences for tourists. Artworks created by Schmaltz for locations in Tahiti and Samoa have passed as authentic local pieces of folk art. And concerns about racism, cultural appropriation, or celebrating colonialism didn’t prevent the 1990s tiki revival movement, which is going strong still.
New revivalists see tiki culture as quaint and harmless byproduct of mid-century naivete and kitsch. Artist and carver Bosko started creating his own tiki mugs based on vintage styles, while artist Shag streamlined and modernized the art of Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Then in 2000, ceramicists Paul Nielsen and his son Miles “Stuckie” Nielsen started Munktiki to produce high-fired tiki mugs with high quality glaze finish.
Hawaiian artist Gecko started sculpting and selling tiki mugs in 2004. His “Legend of Exotica” set celebrates mid-century Hawaiian music greats such as Augie Colon, Martin Denny, and Robert Drasnin. In fact, modern tiki mugs have such a collector’s market now that current tiki restaurants and bars will regularly issue limited-run mugs for anniversaries and special occasions, like the opening of Smuggler’s Cove restaurant in San Francisco in 2012.