Playin' Huki

Kitsch is culture for tikiphiles, and Fort Lauderdale is paradise

The Hukilau horde was dominated by white 30-somethings and aging boomers -- no surprises there. Most were clad in vintage Hawaiian shirts, elegant floral-print dresses, or the occasional mall-bought replica. But there was another contingent as well, younger and edgier, sporting greaser hairdos, work shirts, wallet chains, and body parts spattered with tattoos. For instance, the well-inked kids of Miami's Kreepytiki collective gave the crowd a much needed, if totally benign, sense of danger.

"I just turned 30, and as I got older, I got into hanging out in bars and drinking," explained Jaksin, one of Kreepytiki's resident tattoo artists and tiki carvers. He sported a shaved head and a black Misfits hoodie; dual Sailor Jerry swallow tatts swooped across either side of his neck. "There was a connection between the tikis and punk rock in the sense that it's something that was pushed aside. It's something that America embraced for a while throughout the '50s and the '60s, but they were kind of ashamed of it. They put it on the back burner, and they forgot about it. There's a resurgence in it with a lot of the punk kids because it was underground and it's something that hasn't been exploited."

That's good news for the few tiki palaces left over from when American GIs first brought tiki culture back from their WWII tours of the South Pacific. Elaborate Polynesian theme restaurants like Trader Vic's in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio,'s Kahiki Supper Club were erected midcentury as landlocked shrines to island life and the fleecing of willing tourists. Most of these places have come and gone over the years, victims of American faddism. One of the last and greatest, a blip on Federal Highway to locals but a mecca to tikiphiles, is Fort Lauderdale's Mai Kai, a dark, intricately decorated warren of bamboo lairs and tropical gardens that turns 50 next year.

On Saturday night, the Hukilau denizens flocked to the Mai Kai for the weekend's final fling. Giddiness electrified the air, buoyed by strong drinks, tropical couture, and the last-hurrah camaraderie accrued from three days of relentless tikiphiling. The surfside sounds of the Haole Kats, a three-piece Hawaiian swing band from Tampa, poured from the Mai Kai's Tahiti room, while the burlesque bombshells of Atlanta's Dames A'Flame steamed up the low-lit, wood-paneled Molokai bar.

"The Mai Kai is just incredible," said Crazy Al Evans, a youthful 38-year-old tiki carver attending his third Hukilau. Crazy Al's shoulder-length hair matched his handlebar 'stache; a pinky-sized bone was braided into his goatee. "It's very rare to have an original establishment be what it was back in the heyday. I come from California, and almost every tiki palace has been sold and resold and run down and eventually closed. It's ironic -- now that the movement is growing, almost all of the old places have been destroyed, torn down, and now people are having to make new ones."

Mahalo! Did he say movement? "It is, actually. There's a website, TikiNews.com, and they have a manifesto there. And then there's the Book of Tiki, which this guy Sven Kirsten wrote, which is sort of the Bible, as they say, because he just spelled it out. Before then, there was no documentation of it. He coined the phrase Poly-pop or Polynesian pop and made it into a classification of a design phase, a style, basically."

And so the Hukilau is a rallying cry for this funky faction, one that's urging us all to, you know, relax, have fun. Enjoy American culture -- which has always been about appropriation -- as an art form, not a product. "An era has returned," said North Floridian Mike Holberg as the Boston-based Waitiki Polynesian band packed up their gongs from the Mai Kai stage at the end of the night. "I won't be so bold as to say revival, but... There's always been an element of kitsch to this stuff, but now there's a serious element, because this was a serious art form for a long time."

Or as Charles Phoenix put it: "For decades, we've been told that midcentury modernity is tacky. But you know what? It turns out maybe it wasn't as tacky as we thought."

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