“A tiki party is different than a luau,” says Otto von Stroheim, publisher of Tiki News magazine. “Luaus have hula dancers and Hawaiian-style music and a roasted pig. At a tiki party there’s bongo music, surfer music, and a bunch of jungle-juice tropical drinks — anything that’s blue or red or yellow or pink — in the ’50s style. Tiki is a culture in and of itself — not Polynesian, not island style or, say, Jimmy Buffett. It is anchored by tiki bars, which are fake representations of Polynesian islands here on the mainland.”
This weekend von Stroheim will host the eighth annual Tiki Oasis, a four-day festival sponsored by San Diego’s Save Our Heritage Organisation featuring tiki-themed live music, art, and cocktails. Three years ago, von Stroheim moved his event to San Diego because the Crowne Plaza (formerly the Hanalei Hotel) is among the last of the tiki hotels and has significantly more rooms than the prior venue in Palm Springs. And “San Diego has Bali Hai [restaurant] and a long history of tiki, especially on Shelter Island,” adds von Stroheim.
In Polynesian mythology, tiki is the name given to the first man created by the god Tane; the word has come to mean any sculpted likeness of a human. Ancient Mãoris of New Zealand carved stone pendants called “hei-tiki,” to be worn around the neck. Hawaiians worshipped countless tiki gods, the main four of which are Ku (god of war), Lono (god of fertility and peace), Kane (god of light and life), and Kanaloa (god of the sea).
For von Stroheim, tiki style in America begins with our nation’s contact with the Hawaiian Islands. “I’m not really interested that much in what the culture was prior to Captain [James] Cook, who was the first white guy to study Hawaii,” he says. “[Everything before that] is kind of irrelevant to today’s tiki bars.”
In Hollywood in 1934, a man known as Don the Beachcomber opened what is now considered to be the first tiki bar. After World War II, when soldiers returned home with stories and souvenirs and Rodgers and Hammerstein produced South Pacific (which Hollywood made into a film in 1958), tropical- and Polynesian-themed lounges were all the rage. According to questiki.com, n the 1970s tiki culture suffered from overexposure and was soon seen as kitsch. The site explains, “Plastic hula dolls and mass production had caused a lameness to settle over the former savageness of the tiki gods.” Tiki culture experienced a revival in the 1990s — the style, like rockabilly and swing, was now vintage for a new generation.
“I like to parallel tiki to more pop cultural trends that have a music or style that references a historical era,” says von Stroheim. “I can look at a tiki [sculpture] and say, ‘Oh, this is a ’90s or a 2000s tiki, and that one’s sort of ’60s.’ Pre-1960s tikis were based directly on historic tikis from Hawaii and Tahiti, so they’re basically replicas, characterized by intentional and conservative carving that was done precisely. In the ’60s, artists were copying the copies, and [carvings] looked a little more removed, with less detail — they stretched it out, made it disproportionate, added some features, and stylized it a bit.”
Current artists, says von Stroheim, are influenced by the styles of hot rods, old monster movies, and Rat Fink. This “third generation” of tiki carvers, he says, “reference the ’60s stuff” and are influenced by cartoons and surf culture of the period. “Now you have something that’s roughly the shape of something human — it might be extremely refined down to minimalist lines, or it might be whacked-out.”
Von Stroheim says that he and his wife, Baby Doe, “live tiki” by frequenting tiki bars (his local joint is the Forbidden Island in Alameda) and purchasing just about every tiki-related piece of original art or mass-produced product they encounter.
“I’m like a method actor,” says von Stroheim. “I always wear a tiki shirt [T-shirts or Hawaiian shirts bearing tiki images]. My kids have all the tiki-wear that comes out of Old Navy, etcetera. My wife and I have matching aloha-wear dress/shirt combos that we wear. I have a home bar stocked with rum and mixers, mugs, art, albums, and books.” Von Stroheim’s bar has been featured on the television shows That ’60s Home and the Food Network’s Unwrapped.
Von Stroheim prefers the tiki-loving crowd to devotees of other alternative styles. “It’s not heavy metal, where everybody’s tough and threatening; and it’s not rockabilly, where everyone is trying to be more authentic than each other with the right kind of blue jeans that have the right kind of stitching; or with swing, where you have to dance the right way. For somebody like me, I feel out of place with all these other people who’ve worked so hard for so long nailing it. If you hang out in the bar area at Bali Hai, I guarantee that within a minute somebody will be talking to you.”
Tiki Oasis 8: A Voodoo Vacation
Thursday through Sunday
Crowne Plaza Hotel
2270 Hotel Circle North
Cost: Friday–Saturday ticket, $40; other prices vary