Tiki Culture – A Brief History

Tiki culture has become popular primarily due to people’s preference for the Tiki decorating style, especially in most tropical tourist destinations. What you may not realize is that Tiki culture as it is known to us isn’t really a separate and specific culture, but an interesting combination of elements from the Polynesian, Maori, Hawaiian, and Easter Island cultures. It is believed to reflect an enchanted ancient time in history that is very hard for men to look at and yet harder to look away from. When you see Tiki statues, Tiki totem poles, and Tiki masks, you will understand exactly what this fascinating belief means.

In Polynesian history, the concept of the Tiki is believed to originate in the Marquesas Islands and their mythology identifies the Tiki as a male figure, sometimes also referred to as the first man. Tiki statues are also believed to represent human ancestors. A typical Tiki figure has round eyes, a large flat nose, and a wide mouth, and he stands with his hands clasped over his stomach. There is a slight difference between the Polynesian and Maori beliefs about the Tiki. Maoris view the Tiki as their goddess of childbirth. At the same time, they believe that the Tiki represents their ancestors appearing in human form. They wear small Tiki figures as pendants made of greenstone for good luck. They also use large Tiki statues to mark their sacred sites.

Easter Island features one of the most well-known sacred sites guarded by Tiki statues – Rapa Nui. It is believed that these statues were carved and positioned by the Polynesian colonizers of Easter Island. It is worth noting, however that in the language of the islanders, these figures are known as Moai, and they represent their deified ancestors. In Hawaiian culture, the figures are called Ki’i and there are several versions of the story about their origin and representation. In the midst of all these differences, one commonality stands out – all Tiki figures have very flat faces that are much taller in proportion to their bodies.

In the United States, Tiki culture refers to a blend of all four concepts discussed above. Its rise in popularity started to take shape in 1934. That was the year when Don the Beachcomber opened its doors in Hollywood. It was a bar and restaurant with a distinct Polynesian theme to it. The restaurant featured rattan furniture, brightly-colored fabrics, flaming torches, and leis. Three years later, another restaurant adopted a Tiki theme in Oakland and the theme’s popularity went up in direct proportion to the restaurant’s growth in the Bay Area.

In the mid-1990s, people took a renewed interest in the Tiki culture and decorating style. This interest grew to such proportions that books about the Tiki culture were even published, thus ensuring the Tiki culture’s re-entry into the American mainstream. Tiki-themed parties and events are now very common across America, with Southern California leading the pack in terms of number. It doesn’t really matter where the Tiki culture actually originated from, the fact is that it is interesting and the Tiki decorating style is definitely a lot of fun. Wherever there is an island-themed party, you are sure to find traces of the Tiki.