The Tiki Connection

By Lee Franklin
Tiki Blog main image

Since we launched our Tiki Mask designs last year I have often been asked by friends “what is Tiki ?”…. or What does it have to do with / what is the connection with rockabilly culture ….

So I thought as I have just started this Mid Century Design blog, it seems quite a prudent topic to cover. Now, in order to make sure I got my facts quite straight I have been doing a fair bit of research into the history of Tiki culture and I have to admit my OCD side kicked in and I got way down deep into the nitty gritty details … which was totally fascinating, but probably a bit too much for this light hearted blog … so, I have decided to write a brief history for now and cover more of the details in other posts later down the line.

To put it bluntly, if you were skimming the surface, today’s Tiki pop culture is an appropriation of certain tropical attributes (and attitudes) which have been adopted by the modern Rockabilly scene. And perhaps, to outsiders, it may be a tad baffling why Greasers and Pin up Gals have bamboo bars, Tiki mugs, hoola girls bobbing on the dashboards of their cars and hibiscus flowers in their hair. But once you know the history of Rockabilly and Tiki culture hopefully it all becomes a bit clearer.

The present day Rockabilly scene takes it’s influences from the early 1950’s when Rockabilly music emerged as one of the earliest styles of Rock n Roll music in the United States. 1950’s America was known for it’s Atomic Design, Space Age architecture, Drive Ins, Diners and … yep, Tiki Bars.

Tiki themed bars and lounges exploded all over America during the 1930’s, gaining popularity till they were the height of fashion across the whole nation in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Two men were instrumental in starting this craze of Tiki bars, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt and Vic Bergeron. A mythology about the rivalry between these two men has grown over the years … which, again, is a great story in itself, but one which I will return to for another post at another time….

In 1934, after the end of prohibition, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (who later changed his name to Donn Beach) opened Donn’s Beachcomber Café, a Polynesian style bar and lounge in Los Angeles. Inspired by his travelling and bootlegging days in the South Pacific, Beach created a “real” tropical experience, with food, drink, music and décor, all Polynesian in style and flavor.

Step in through the door, leave your troubles behind, you’re on ‘Island time’ ….

It was an instant success and became the hot spot for Hollywood elite and stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. Beach served tropical cocktails, which he invented himself … mixing flavoured syrups and fresh fruit juices with rum. He is credited as having created the tropical drink genre singlehandedly. He did create some of the most memorable exotic cocktails such as the Scorpion and the Zombie, although the claim of inventing the Mai Tai (the icononc drink of the Tiki era) is strongly disputed and also claimed by his fellow ‘Tiki King’ and rival Vic Bergeron.

Vic Bergeron opened his Polynesian restaurant and lounge a few years later in 1937. He called it Trader Vic’s and whereas the origins of Tiki style can be credited to Donn Beach, the use of the word Tiki to describe this style is all down to Trader Vic’s.

In 1955, Trader Vic opened a new restaurant in Beverly Hills. Outside stood a huge wooden figure, which was a copy of a Maori sculpture that had been displayed in the 1894 California International Midwinter Exposition. The original figure was carved in the likeness of a Maori god called ‘Tiki’ and had stood guard outside a meetinghouse in a Maori village.

The Trader Vic version became known as a ‘Tiki’ statue and various versions of this ‘Tiki’ motif also featured on menus and other printed material.

By the mid to late 50’s both Trader Vic’s and Donn’s Beachcomber Café had opened up new locations all across America and many restaurants and bars were copying the Tiki theme and using the Tiki motif. Tropical cocktails were often served in ceramic mugs, depicting these ‘Tikis’ (which became known as tiki mugs). Most bars offered their signature drink in one of these tiki mugs and customers were able to take them home as souvenirs. The Tiki mug went on to become a classic and highly collectable Tiki object.

But Tiki culture wasn’t just driven by the Tiki Bars alone …they certainly put it on the map and provided the venues for well needed tropical escapism, but love for ‘Island Time' had been slowly invading American culture for a quite while before Donn Beach opened his doors …

The first inklings go back as far as the 18th century when ‘western’ explorers were first discovering Polynesian and Maori culture. They returned with stories of tropical strange new worlds, seemingly hedonistic societies and freedoms that were out of reach in reserved western society. This inspired the novelists and writers of the time, and by the 1920’s it had begun to feed into Hollywood and even the music people listened to.

A few major Polynesian exhibitions also helped to reinforce the fascination. California’s World Fair in 1939, The Golden gate International Exposition, celebrated Polynesian culture by showcasing goods of nations bordering the Pacific Ocean, and in 1945 MOMA mounted a massive South Seas show.

In 1947 the Kon-Tiki expedition and subsequent best selling book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft really captured the people’s imagination.

After WWII, it was the turn of homecoming soldiers to bring back souvenirs and spread tales of tropical wonder. Hollywood was still doing it’s bit - we all know the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific … which was based on Tales of the South Pacific, by 1948 Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener

Post-war America also saw the rise of the middle class as an economic force. This, coupled with ever-increasing affordability of travel, particularly air travel to Hawaii, helped to propel the nation's interest in all things tropical. So by the time Hawaii was annexed to the United States as the 50th state in 1959, the love affair was definitely in full flow….

By the late 1950’s Tiki culture had started to venture out of the bars and into people’s homes as a sophisticated style of décor. It’s possible this love of rustic tropical décor was a reaction to the more austere and futuristic design styles of the likes of Eames and Mid Century Modern. But by the 1960’s, a design movement known as Tiki Modern had emerged which executed Polynesian themes with clean, modern lines, and so blending well with the atomic age and Mid Century Modern design.

The influence of Tiki was huge by this time and it was influencing not just home interiors but also architecture on a grand scale. Large shopping and even entire living districts of some cities were heavily influenced by Polynesian style.

By the 1970’s Tiki had definitely had it’s day. The new younger generation, with their own sense of ‘cool’ considered it passé. The Vietnam War had wrenched America out of escapism and back to reality. Tiki became a tired old kitsch cliché and was replaced by shiny new Disco.

Today Trader Vic’s is the only original Tiki chain to be still in operation, but a new Don The Beachcomber was opened in Huntington Beach, California in 2009 and independent Tiki bars have been surviving in little pockets and forming their own traditions over the years, creating fabulous sub-genres. The Tiki revival that came about in recent years has nurtured these sub-genres to create a fabulous new multi-faceted Tiki pop culture which embraces the kitsch elements in all it’s splendour and it’s all about the tropical fun … back to that good ole escapism … some say quite timely given the current economic downturn and rather reminiscent of post WWII austerity.

 Tiki with flowers, blog image

Want more TIKI?

Check out our contemporary Tiki offerings 

Shop the Inkabilly Tiki Collection


Or peruse our Pinterest Tiki board for a wealth of images (trad and revival), articles, cocktail recipes, DIY tiki bars ...

Follow InkaBilly's board Tiki on Pinterest.

Plus you might also like some of our favourite Tiki websites ... 

Cheeky Tiki Logo

  • Cheeky Tiki are designing and creating Tiki bars in the UK today, plus carving Tikis and selling fabulous bar accessories from their website.

Diablo Jo Logo

  • Diablo Jo makes all sorts of quirky Tattoo, Rockabilly and Tiki inspired art and accessories. Check out her store  
  • If you're the travelling sort and want to check out  the Best Tiki Bars here are two great links that list the Top Tiki Bars in Europe ....and in the World! 
  • Further serious reading can be found in the fabulous books by the King of Tiki, Sven A. Kirsten, published by Taschen. Available on Amazon 

Tik Books by Sven A. Kirsten, published by Taschen

  • Finally, you probably need a stiff drink by now, so  if you’d like to make yourself an original Mai Tai from Trader Vic himself… here’s the original recipe! Courtesy of


 Mai Tai Recipe

1 oz amber Martinique rum
1 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz orgeat syrup*
1/2 oz of Cointreau
garnish with mint (a lime if you like)

    Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, except the garnish. Shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with fresh mint and a lime if you fancy that. You can also float some dark rum on top of the cocktail.

    * orgeat syrup is a sweet almond syrup – get the recipe to make your own, plus many more original cocktail recipes of the time at


    Have fun! ... it's Island Time! 


    Thanks to: BY ADAM LAPETINA