Tiki Oasis, a Convention for Fans of Retro Tropical Kitsch

Oasis performer Jason Lee and glamorous gal pals.

Lina LecaroOasis performer Jason Lee and glamorous gal pals.

Every year, near summer’s end, thousands of people in colorful dress and costumes gather with like-minded collectors and enthusiasts in San Diego to show off their finery, attend presentations, enjoy live entertainment, buy stuff and party harder than any college kid on spring break. And the event is nothing like Comic-Con.

While comic/sci-fi nerdism has gone mainstream, niche-ier events have found success by nurturing more focused subcultures and aesthetics garnering a steadily growing fanbase. Tiki Oasis, which took over San Diego’s Crowne Plaza hotel this past Thursday thru Sunday, attracts crowds as avid and audacious as any cosplay/comics event, but with 14 years under its hula skirt, it’s  managed to grow bigger and bigger while retaining a wonderfully pure feel. 

Creator Otto von Stroheim thinks it will always stay that way too. “You can judge most big events by its sponsors,” said von Stroheim, a San Fernando Valley native who started throwing tiki themed house parties back in the late 80s when he lived in Venice Beach. “We choose ours carefully. For example all our liquor sponsors are small companies with owners who are very involved in the making and marketing of their products.”

Rum, a mainstay component in most tropical drinks, has a major presence, of course, and it was the star of the symposium offerings this year. Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove hosted two packed rum tastings and lectures.

Hawaiian marketplace.

Lina LecaroHawaiian marketplace.

Though non-stop, on-site activities and wild, late night “room party crawls” go on the whole weekend, the event remains noticeably chill. After all, island life is all about relaxation and escapism. Sipping colorful cocktails with tiny umbrellas by the pool, wearing comfy Hawaiian shirts and dresses and a decidedly retro celebration of leisure all figure in.

The “retro” part is important. According to von Stroheim, Oasis adheres to a “fairly strict time frame of '50s and '60s tiki culture,” so the four-day festivites are swarming with pin-up, burlesque and go-go girl looks and fellas working the greaser or beatnik style.

Every year, the event takes on a different simpatico theme, and this year highlighted the latter era: “Beat Tiki” (promo tagline: “Dig That Crazy Scene!”) Presentations included Charles Phoenix’s kitschy slideshow, discussions exploring L.A.’s Beat Generation, a lecture covering the work of Exotica music pioneer Eden Ahbez and a “Literary Drinks” talk covering favorite libations of beat poets and authors. Next year, an old school outer space theme is planned, sure to feature plenty of Mid-Century Modern decor and wares, not to mention Barbarella looks. 

The Rum Revolution symposium.

Lina LecaroThe Rum Revolution symposium.

El Vez ("The Mexican Elvis") headlined the live stage Saturday night, sharing theme-appropriate cholo beat poetry and performing Latin-ized versions of the King’s hits flanked by his "Elvettes" dressed in striped shirts and berets. Sixties bands and '60s revivalists including the Standells, Love (Revisited) and the Unclaimed filled the hotel’s outdoor courtyard and pool area with grinding and grooving all weekend. Other amusements included a car show, poolside fashion shows, and pin-up makeovers, where ladies got old fashioned hairdos, bright red lipstick and false lashy, followed by a photo shoot. Well known L.A. fetish model Masuimi Max debuted her new makeup line, I Am Sin, and said she got such a great response, she wants her own vendor bungalo next year. 

Free libations abounded in the hotel's swingin' after hours room crawl parties.

Lina LecaroFree libations abounded in the hotel's swingin' after hours room crawl parties.

The L.A. contingent was everywhere. DJs from L.A.-based (including Howie Pyro, Kari Kaos and Lee Joseph, the event's longtime PR man and owner of Dionysus Records) spun poolside and /or in the hotel lobby, while Burbank-based company Pin-up Girl clothing (whom Max models for), was a major sponsor this year, their logo printed on the event’s Coachella-like wrist bands. “It’s such a great, multi-faceted event,” said PUG owner Laura Byrnes of Oasis. “There’s family fun, stuff for the hardcore party people... It's really diverse. “ Having a major presence made particularly good sense this year, as PUG's latest line happens to be frocks in bold tropical prints.

The Unclaimed rock the crowd.

Lina LecaroThe Unclaimed rock the crowd.

“Tiki Oasis gives you a full breadth of wackiness,” said Oscar Moreno, a toy designer from Silver Lake garbed in eye-popping dayglo vintage floral prints. “It’s about beards, boobs, butts and burlesque. Head to toe, from makeup and hair to fashion. “

TK - Tiki Oasis

Though newcomers are welcome, they should know that Oasis is a very participatory event. Looky-loos will stand out in this jovial sea of florals and vintage brights. Everyone is super-friendly, but poseurs need not dive in. And an underground DIY feel should remain no matter how huge the event gets (this year Tiki Oasis attracted 3,000 attendees). After all, von Stroheim was a punk rocker when he started throwing his tiki events, which led him to create a zine about tiki life, which led to promoting the Oasis. He and wife "Baby Doe" (of the San Fran dance troupe the Devillettes) have been putting the event together from their Northern California home the past several years, and with two kids of their own, they've made sure it's a family event for those who want that. But really, everyone's like family here.

Laura Byrne (second from right), Masuimi Max (second from left) and the Pinup Girls.

Lina LecaroLaura Byrne (second from right), Masuimi Max (second from left) and the Pinup Girls.

“For the most part we all grew up around the same time, went to the same music shows, and share similar references and histories because of our lifestyles," said von Stroheim. "People get into it. They research what they want to wear. What they want to add to their collections. The music. The art. It's important to them. There’s a real love of this culture no matter how long you've been into it. “ 

Tiki for two.

Lina LecaroTiki for two.

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