Mention the South Pacific and one of the first images conjured is nearly always the iconic carved Tiki. Long a revered symbol of the South Pacific, the Tiki has a rich history rooted in ancient civilization. Tiki statues have been found throughout the South Pacific dating back at least 3,500 years. Their appearances vary according to the region, though they usually feature a stylized masculine form with large eyes and an often menacing expression which is meant to scare away evil spirits.

Pop Tiki Culture: The Fascinating HistoryA number of island groups have their own legends and mythology that explain the significance of Tiki statues. According to many Polynesian legends, Tiki was believed to be the first man on earth and the statues carved to honor this were considered sacred and powerful. Throughout the Hawaiian islands, Tiki statues were carved to pay homage to several ancient gods identified with elements like the sea, light and war. Meanwhile in ancient Maori culture, Tiki is considered the goddess of childbirth and the Tiki symbol was often worn to protect against infertility. Across cultures and regions, statues often marked sacred sites, signifying that the location was a place of worship or was otherwise a revered spiritual location.

The Origin of Pop Tiki Culture

Pop Tiki Culture: The Fascinating HistoryTiki culture made the leap to the U.S. in 1934 with the opening of Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian themed restaurant in Hollywood, California. The restaurant served Cantonese cuisine and exotic rum punches and décor capturing the island escape ambiance: carved Tikis, masks, torches, rattan furniture, flower leis and vibrantly colored fabrics. The proprietor, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, was a young man who had sailed throughout the South Pacific and found inspiration in the dreamy Polynesian islands and their enigmatic Tiki carvings and mythology.

Pop Tiki Culture: The Fascinating HistoryThe restaurant was immediately a hit among Hollywood stars and the elite, and garnered attention from LIFE Magazine. Others, like Trader Vic (created by Victor Bergeron) in Oakland, quickly adopted the Tiki theme for their restaurants. Tiki-themed bars and restaurants rapidly became a sensation throughout the country. With the return of soldiers from the South Pacific after World War II, Tiki culture skyrocketed in popularity even further. The romanticized version of Tiki culture spread into other aspects of American culture, influencing everything from home décor and architecture to music and clothing. The island fervor peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, booming with attractions such as Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. By the early 1970s, the widespread exposure and popularity of Tiki culture seemed to finally cause the enchantment to begin to fade.

Pop Tiki Culture: The Fascinating HistoryOver time, the relationship with Tiki culture transformed into one of nostalgia and fondness, and it is now often appreciated for its kitsch appeal. The Tiki splendor of the earlier era continues to live on today, such as with San Francisco’s iconic Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in the Fairmont Hotel which was built in 1945, and features an artificial lagoon, Tiki torches and island “rainstorms” on the half-hour.

Explore the lands of the true Tiki on a dream getaway in the South Pacific in 2015:

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