Roadside America -
Tiki & Polynesian Pop
Tiki & the American Polynesian Pop Phenomenon: Where did it
come from and where did it go?
We can still see remnants of a peculiar
culture that existed in the not so distant past, in most parts of the United
States. You may see a mysterious carved god-like figure that may still stand
duty near a torn down nightspot, and then there's that weird cocktail glass
that was in with your parent's garage sale stuff. What was this all about and
where did it go?
If you were alive in the '50s & '60s in the US you may
remember a different time, a time when Tiki roamed all urban areas and was our
god of hedonism. A time when America took a trip to paradise without leaving
In the mid 20th century when U.S. citizens first started to
hear about Hawaii and the South Sea Isles it all seemed like heaven on earth.
Tropical beaches, lush vegetation, and beautiful natives...it seemed as if all
of this natural beauty must be literally a Heaven on earth. A name was given to
this place, this feeling, this idea, and that was Polynesia!
California, the closest thing to Exotica here in the United
States, was the first to embrace this notion of Paradise on earth. Some thought
it possible to bring this feeling and way of life here to the mainland, at
least for a night at a time! Soon, entrepreneurs began to build structures in
homage to Polynesian primitivism and native culture, it became the modern thing
to do. All around California, restaurants and motels began to be built with
outrigger beams; waterfalls and the paths to them were illuminated with Tiki
torches. Even places as mundane as bowling alleys and shopping centers, soon
had frenzied architects designing sweeping outrigger like roofs that cut jagged
edges into the landscape.
California in that day was a place that many Americans looked
to for future trends in many avenues of culture and lifestyle. So it came as no
surprise that in almost every urban area in the U.S., a monument to the
Polynesian way of life was soon erected.
But who was this "Tiki"? It seems
Tiki was an amalgam of many different primitive icons that was
"Americanized". In the ancient lore of the Islands, Tiki represented
many things including a sexual figure, a god of the artists. This aesthetic
lent itself quite comfortably to the "modern" trend of thought,
design, art, music, etc. of the times. Those who were "in the know",
or considered themselves "modern", embraced this bohemian primitivism
completely. Quite simply stated, Tiki was cool. Middle class Americans soon
picked on the new "cool". In many homes a wooden or stone Tiki could
be seen standing by while guests sipped decadent Polynesian intoxicants. This
was a time when America was truly cocktail crazy. Tiki meant sophistication and
FUN all at the same time.
Alas, it was not to last.
By the mid-sixties, Tiki culture began to fade from the
landscape. The children of those who indulged themselves in Polynesia-mania did
not follow in their parent's footsteps. Partying in the sixties moved from
alcohol to other substances. Other distant and exotic locales, Europe and the
UK, captured the younger generation's curiosity.
Sadly, Tiki architecture and its motifs fell out of favor as a
design choice and were viewed as some peculiar fad that was now very
over at the time of the early to mid-seventies. For the most part these once
proud primitive temples of hedonism fell into decline, modified beyond
recognition or just demolished. The '70s yielded a new modern aesthetic and a
new concept of what "tropical" meant to the masses, Tiki got
homogenized. By the '80s, the mysterious civilization called Tiki was virtually
extinct from our urban areas. The God had returned to the heavens, and we as a
civilization are missing a link.