Sunday, June 7, 2009

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Bookshelf: Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop

The fact that many of the mugs
were purchased (or even stolen)
by our parents and grandparents,
during nights of naïve debauchery
their heyday,
was just cool.

~ Holden Westland

When I was a kid, my mother’s expression tiki-tacky captured her disdain for vulgar kitsch of any kind. Around our house back then, the faux-Polynesian escapism of mid-century drinkers was the epitome of bad taste; outside a velvet Jesus, tiki was about as lowbrow as you could get.

These days, tiki’s star is looking a lot more polished. If you are too young to have caught it the first time around, you’re in luck—tiki is on the rise again in America. Enthusiasts up and down the west coast and across the nation are donning Hawaiian shirts, digging out Martin Denny music, and cracking open rum and homemade orgeat to blend some of the best tropical drinks we’ve seen in a very long time. They’re also hunting down the right mugs in which to put those drinks.

Even in the Whiskey Forge, a growing little herd of ceramic tiki mugs graces the copper-topped dry sink where my grandfather mixed his nightly manhattans. Two of them, orange-lined matte black Miehana mugs, are birthday presents to Morpheus from…my mother.

What a difference a few decades make.

One or two mugs doesn’t make a collection. But a little herd—especially a growing one—starts to sound suspiciously like something that would benefit from a guide or a handbook to explain what’s what. Stepping up nicely is Jay Strongman’s Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop.

Strongman spends nearly 60 pages laying out the origins and evolution of tiki, an American construct and romanticized mashup of South Pacific designs, architecture, food, art, history, natural history, anthropology, and sex brought together brought together under the umbrella of drink.

In its heyday in the 1950’s-70’s, tiki was everywhere. More than any other aspect of tiki culture, the mug is perhaps the best known and most widely available. A recent tiki revival centered in California has created a broader demand for old mugs and inspired modern artists to produce original designs. Some are eye-popping.

Unlike your everyday coffee mug or teacup, tiki mugs are figural representations of humans, idols, monsters, and fanciful animals. Heads usually dominate the design. The mugs draw on Polynesian arts, but also tap other traditions. So, mugs styled after Hawaiian, Maori, Rarotongan, or Easter Island Moai patterns and carvings are clearly tiki, but skulls and Amazonian Jivaro-style shrunken heads are popular. Monkeys and apes, too. Even spaceships, aliens, and robots. Some you can put in the dishwasher—others deserve spots in museums. [This is not idle/idol praise: with degrees in anthropology and museum administration, I am a curatorial collector by inclination, training, and practice.]

By the time I learned about tiki as a kid, it was already passé and the mugs were practically cast-offs at garage sales, flea markets, and swap meets. The larger bowls meant to hold communal drinks were sold as planters for ferns and aspidistra. These days, you can still collect some without breaking the bank, but be aware that particularly rare mugs fetch hundreds of dollars and limited releases sell out quickly.

With hundreds of color photos over 175 pages and an introduction by Tiki Farm’s Holden Westland, Strongman’s enthusiasm shines through on every page. Tiki Mugs guides the would-be collector and casual enthusiast though the major producers and designers, lists websites for buying and trading mugs as well as covering tiki culture more broadly, and breaks mugs down into easy-to understand categories.

Quite simply, each and every tiki enthusiast from San Clemente to Vladivostok should own a copy.

Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop
Jay Strongman (foreward by Holden Westland) (2009)
Korero Books
ISBN: 0955339812
Buy it here.

Goes well with:
  • For tiki aficionados on the go, the canny Beachbum Berry has introduced an iPhone app that presents—with photos—nearly every drink recipe from four of his books. Use it. Repeatedly.
  • An old clip of Martin Denny playing his classic "Quiet Village" in totally, absolutely, not-at-all-idealized and 100% authentic Hawaiian village:

Oh, and for my birthday? It’s in August. Tiki mugs. Just sayin’.

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