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The History of Tikis: The Clash Between Culture and Kitsch

A “Tiki” is described as a small image of a human figure. Traditionally carved out of wood, Tikis have a uniquely tribal appearance that more strongly resembles a stout man wearing a mask than a classical human figure. It is possible that this very oddity in appearance is precisely what has made Tikis among the most highly collectable, albeit kitschy, items that are sought after by people across the globe.

Tikis originated from the ancient mythology of the Maori people.
Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Tikis originated in Polynesia, a sub-region of Oceania (the area around Australia and New Zealand) that is made up of over 1,000 small islands. Tikis are most notable in New Zealand where Maori mythology claims that Tikis are representative of the first man, Tiki, who was created by the God Tumatauenga (or “Tane”). This ancient myth resulted in artisans carving humanoid figures in honor of Tiki. Most of these original carvings can be found throughout Polynesia and some are considered valuable artifacts that are of interest to history museums.

Although genuine Tikis are extremely valuable and hold a lot of historical and cultural significance, it was the 20th century boom in tourism to Polynesia that made Tikis world famous. The “Tiki Culture” trend began in the 1930s when wealthy Westerners brought Tiki artifacts home after vacationing in Polynesia. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s wealthy Americans and Europeans took increasingly frequent trips to the Polynesian islands and showed strong interest in the very unusual looking—yet uniquely cute—Tiki figures. As tourism progressed, island artisans started crafting Tiki merchandise that was intended to be sold in bulk for relatively cheap prices. Hence, Tiki memorabilia was brought back to the Western world in droves and the quirky objects quickly gained attention for their individual appearance.

Americans were particularly keen on Tikis and during the mid-to-late 20th century many Polynesian-style restaurants opened throughout the United States (a trend that spread elsewhere, especially in Europe). The décor in these establishments was almost always inspired by Tiki carvings and mythology. However, Tikis in these settings were usually cheap to produce and appeared on mass marketed plastic items like cups and plates. Hence, this form of Tiki culture was generally looked down upon and regarded as being American kitsch opposed to an authentic Polynesian art form.

Despite the tacky quality associated with kitsch culture, the popularity of Tiki items soared due to themed restaurants that made Tiki merchandise available to people who otherwise would not have the means to travel to Polynesia and discover the figures in their native environment. Furthermore, because many Tiki-related objects in American kitsch Polynesia-styled restaurants were made out of plastics they were cheap to buy and, therefore, highly collectable. Furthermore, the television comedy sitcom “Gillian’s Island,” which ran from 1964-1967, featured many Tiki-inspired sets and such blatant promotion by the media furthered the Tiki-furor of the 1960s.

Although the true height of Tiki-interest dwindled in the 1970s, it has never completely vanished. Until this day Tiki merchandise is highly collectable. Tiki cups and mugs can easily be found online for extremely affordable prices. Since many Tiki-mugs are associated with alcoholic beverages it is also easy to find “Tiki Bars” intended for backyard barbeques and/or “Tiki Parties” that have become popular in many suburban neighborhoods during the summer. Additionally, several major American novelty retailers like “Party City” offer an array of Tiki-inspired merchandise including lanterns, tablecloths and napkins.

Although the plastic merchandise associated with kitsch American “Tiki Culture” is dramatically different from the genuine and historical Polynesian Tikis, it is still noteworthy that the interest in Tikis was derived from travel and exploration. By looking at the history and culture of other people and places it is possible to make once-exotic images recognizable to people across the globe; as the 20th century “Tiki Craze” illustrates.

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