The precise stages of the revival of tiki culture are not easy to reconstruct. For instance, does the 20 Jazz Funk Greats album, by Throbbing Gristle, with its mix of kitschy arrangements and exotic instrumentation, mark the beginning of the genre’s rediscovery? It did beget 1980’s Greatest Hits compilation by the same band which boasted an album cover swiped from Martin Denny’s classic exotica motif of the late 1950s. Denny was, of course, the soundtrack to the original tiki explosion in postwar America—a genre defined by cheesy, over-the-top simulations of primitive island culture.

Nothing, however, in the immediate aftermath of those two LPs by Throbbing Gristle could be said to’ve engendered a movement; unless you count artist/musician/collector Jeffrey Vallance’s one-off single, “Junie” b/w “Surfadelic,” released in 1981, under the nom de plume “The Tikis.”

Vallance, by this time, had already gotten his M.A. from the Otis Art Institute (in L.A.), travelled around Polynesia looking for midcentury artifacts, and (by his own report) had correspondences with the Soviet Union and Red China. If the die was, in fact, cast by these early pairings of kitsch and underground attitude, it would take another decade for tiki’s first fruits to take serious root.

Otto Von Stroheim, whose real name I don’t have a clue of, launched his fanzine Tiki News in 1995. By that time nascent revivals in surf, burlesque, swing, and lounge music were all underway. The visual side of retro got a serious boost with the advent of “official” Low-Brow culture, mediated by Robert Williams and Greg Escalante’s Juxtapoz magazine, which launched in 1996.

Besides the elder statesmen of West Coast Low Brow (Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Rick Griffin, R. Crumb, and, conveniently, Williams himself), there was also a new crop of artists mining classic American kitsch for inspiration. The two biggest names were painters Mark Ryden and Josh Agle (aka Shag)—each of whom based their aesthetic approach at least partially on vintage American tiki.

Von Stroheim’s zine was never so streamlined, or design-savvy, as Juxtapoz, though that hardly seemed his mission. (Tiki News was, above all, a magazine for hardcore collectors, not a mainstream art publication). The collector/historian who took tiki in the design direction was actually a German expat, then living in East Hollywood, named Sven Kirsten.


Kirsten is best known today for his image-heavy, telephone-sized coffee-table books on tiki culture, all published by Taschen, of which 2000’s The Book of Tiki was his first and easily most groundbreaking. If Von Stroheim is tiki’s penultimate fanboy and first apostle, then Kirsten is the genre’s visionary evangelist. In the wake of his Book of Tiki the revival exploded.

Plastic tiki-wares were suddenly being sold in Walmart and Target. Specialty mugs were minted by entrepreneurs from within the sub-culture (including one of Kirsten himself as an Easter Island idol). There were tiki dolls, tiki underwear, tiki shower curtains, even a few tiki porno films, with native-style gods watching over homosapien doing, well, what it’s always done. (Kirsten’s books all posit tiki as a phallic symbol of Polynesian antiquity.)

There were also tiki meet-ups and tiki conventions, the biggest of which was created by Von Stroheim in 2001, dubbed Tiki Oasis. First conceived as a weekender, held at a tiki-themed motel for hardcores in Palm Springs, by 2006 it moved camp to a large San Diego hotel. Since then Tiki Oasis has become an annual, all-in-one live music festival, three-day bacchanal, historical lecture series, and pop-up emporium for modern artisans to hawk their wares.

This past fall, the St. Peter and St. Paul of tiki culture finally teamed up to curate a gallery exhibition and affiliated coffee-table book, which they’ve titled The Art of Tiki. Held at the Laz Luz de Jesus Gallery on Sunset Blvd. (in Silver Lake) the show boasts two rooms packed to the guilds with original tiki sculptures and paintings spanning the 1950s through the present day.

The opening room is by far the more compelling of the two. It features over fifty original carvings, many from long-defunct tiki bars, hotels, and restaurants of the postwar era. These include the wooden parrot which once hovered above the entrance to the Kona Kai restaurant, near the Philadelphia Airport, where my own family dined (often) when it was originally erected in 1961. (It was on its last leg when I was a kid in the mid-eighties and the catalog for The Art of Tiki makes special note of the object’s “patina.”)

The parrot carving that once stood at the entrance to the Philadelphia Kona Kai restaurant between 1961 and 1985. It was one of the items on display at the recent "Art of Tiki" exhibition at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery, in Los Angeles.

This parrot carving once stood at the entrance to the Philadelphia Kona Kai restaurant between 1961 and 1985. It is now one of the items on display at the recent “Art of Tiki” exhibition at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery, in Los Angeles.

Besides the parrot, the show also hosts rows and rows of thick, dark-wooden columns, also from the Kona Kai, each with stacked, carved tiki faces—part totem-pole, part hall of masks from the cloister of the Many-Faced God on the island of Bravos. The question remains: how did this gallery procure these incredible artifacts given that so many original tiki emporiums have gone the way of the dodo?

The simple answer is that some savvy collector, or group of collectors, had the whole thing wired way before tiki became a trend again; and like collectors in other fields—take automotive or petroleum, for example, with their obsession for old gas pumps and oil signage—the objects were snatched up just before they met their demise. That’s partially true of the Kona Kai pieces. Yet there’s another factor involved too.

Since tiki was still a hidden obsession for a select few converts in the mid-eighties; and since many of the postwar-era bars were closing or rapidly deteriorating, given that tiki culture was, by that time, considered both passé and in poor taste (more on that later), the onus lay with the cultivated collector to determine how and under what circumstances said carvings should be rescued.

Hence, in the opening issue of Von Stroheim’s Tiki News, in 1995, a manifesto was put forth: if a tiki is still in its original setting, and is being well-cared for and put to good use by its owners, then it must be left alone for all to enjoy. But if it is in a state of disrepair, or is in eminent danger of being discarded, then the tiki collector is charged with saving said artifact.

This led the early followers of tiki, during what surely seemed like the last death rattle of the genre, c. 1980-94, to procure these objects in the dead of night and store them in their apartments and homes around Los Angeles. That is ultimately where a good bunch of the objects in this exhibition came from. The irony is: they are no longer kitschy discards of a more innocent era in American history; instead they’ve become highly-coveted artworks which fetch thousands of dollars wherever they come up for sale. Indeed, nearly the entire first room of The Art of Tiki sold out within minutes of the show opening.

A picture of a fallen tiki idols from the 1980s, which "The Art of Tiki" curators Sven Kirsten and Otto Von Stroheim saw all too often before their work as historians helped turn the tide in tiki's favor.

A snapshot of a fallen tiki idol from the 1980s, which “The Art of Tiki” curators Sven Kirsten and Otto Von Stroheim saw all too often in the years before their work as historians helped turn the tide in tiki’s favor.

On the one hand, it’s sad to see them leave the hands of these old-time collectors, most of whom procured the objects through their own sweat and ingenuity, only now to see them go to the highest bidder. Such works, I’m afraid, will never again come into the possession of the bohemian artist or collector.

On the other hand, the payout on these objects could probably afford the owner a down-payment on a house, or something to that extant. The point being: tiki is now big business. What’s more the demographic—essentially first-wave punks and new-wavers—has not so much changed; it’s simply gotten older and more affluent.

No one knows this better than Kirsten, who besides being published on the subject numerous times, has also maintained its intellectual sensibility through numerous slideshows on the subject. He’s gone around the world, signing books for fans at tiki conventions, even curating a major tiki exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in 2014. Yet where that was state-sponsored, and allowed Kirsten to focus more on history than on sales, The Art of Tiki is all about the Benjamins.

Not that that makes it a worse show. Indeed, in this day and age it’s hard to tell which faction is worse: the wealthy or the intellectual elite. (I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.) What is obvious about both shows is that Kirsten (and now Von Stroheim) are able to tap the richest sources of this culture, in terms of content, to create exhibitions that no one else in tiki is capable of. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that (1) the catalog, or hardbound book, that goes with the show is perhaps too much a new Kirsten book and not enough a memento of the actual exhibition; and (2) the second room, filled with contemporary tiki artworks, is more or less propaganda for the movement.

To the first point: Kirsten’s previous three books—the aforementioned Book of Tiki (2000), Tiki Modern (2007), and Tiki Pop (2014)—all worked as collections of images and artifacts, assembled to tell essentially the same story: that Western Europeans and North American whites, having lost all contact with their primitive ancestry and living woefully rigid lives (spawned of technological empires), became newly aware of their longing for freedom and leisure in the postwar era.

This was especially true of the many G.I.s who were posted in the South Pacific during World War 2, and who returned home afterwards to find themselves re-entered into the rat-race and newly obsessed with communists (at home and abroad). Kirsten’s books never judge these people’s incursions into ersatz primitivism; nor do his books take issue with middle class white people appropriating another culture’s deities by turning them into receptacles for drinking rum or as interior decorations rather than ritualistic icons.

For Kirsten the political incorrectness, if not outright racism, can be overlooked, as the intentions were basically benign. I’d add that while the use of such objects may be questionable the technical virtuosity and aesthetic care put into them is beyond reproach.

Take, for example, a carved panel from a long-defunct Trader Vic’s restaurant in St. Louis (artist unknown). It features two tiki faces, each turned opposite the other, albeit co-joined at the mouth. The painted areas are simple, yet evocative, with muted browns, yellows, and oranges, all combined to create an abstract pattern that both cloaks the exact dimensions of the faces and invites the viewer into its distinct mystery.

A highly-abstracted tiki carving, from a panel originally posted in the St. Louis Trader Vic's restaurant. Long-defunct, the object is now on view in the "Art of Tiki" exhibition.

A highly-abstracted tiki carving, from a panel originally posted in the St. Louis Trader Vic’s restaurant. Long-defunct, the object is now on view in the “Art of Tiki” exhibition.

In that way Kirsten’s main problem has less to do with aesthetics and more the line he’s been forced to blur between pure history and advocacy for the cause. Historical context in tact, tiki has a distinct story to tell; remove that story and it seems naive at best, bigoted at worst. Hence, Kirsten almost counts on his text to shape the narrative on which the outsized imagery rests.

He repeats this formula in the Art of Tiki book, though in its fourth iteration, the tale feels old. Early chapters seem like outtakes from the author’s first three books on the subject; the latter ones, which include most of the actual artworks in the exhibition, never quite make that fact explicit. It’s almost as if the book were written for a different show altogether; namely the one Kirsten curated in Paris in 2014. Yet where that exhibition was aimed at museum-goers of any stripe, be they fans of tiki or complete neophytes, The Art of Tiki is clearly pitched at hardcore collectors. Surely no newcomer to the genre would pay six figures for a weather-worn wood carving.

Von Stroheim, on the other hand, is impervious to such liberalizing effects. His focus from the outset, with both Tiki News and his Tiki Oasis events, has been to collect and promote. Even his three small paperback books, titled Tiki Art Now (volumes 1-3), feel less like curation, more like PR opportunities for the genre.

It’s difficult to says whose approach—Kirtsen’s or Von Stroheim’s—gave more shape to The Art of Tiki. If I had to guess I’d say that Kirsten’s keen eye for spectacular design and artifacts that speak to the zeitgeist of tiki culture was applied to the first room, while Von Stroheim’s knack for inclusion and boosterism was all over Room #2. I know which version I prefer; but again, each are problematic.

In the end, is tiki best left to the masses—unfocused, uncurated, something of a vulgar emblem of all that is ambiguous in modern culture? Or should it be streamlined into liberalism and high-rhetoric? The culture may in fact touch us because it is so provincial, un-complex, and politically suspect; yet would any of these artifacts survive without the collective bankroll of the institution and the wealthy? These and other questions are left unanswered for the time being. (Brian Chidester)