Ceramic drinking vessels that emulate the decor and ephemera seen in Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands are no longer mere mugs. Over the past few decades, the tiki mug has become a highly sought-after vintage collectible, which can go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. There's also a market for newer tiki mugs, and these aren’t much cheaper. One of the biggest local manufacturers, San Clemente's Tiki Farm, creates both generic styles for chain restaurants and more unusual, smaller lots for bars and events. They even had an art show at La Luz de Jesus showcasing their collection a few years ago.
Several local artisans design limited-edition mugs for popular tiki bars such as Tiki Ti in Silver Lake (which is temporarily closed), Tonga Hut in North Hollywood, Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach and tiki-themed events around the country, such as this weekend’s Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs.
Where did the tiki mug come from and why the current resurgence? Sven A. Kirsten — whose definitive books about the culture for Taschen include 2000’s The Book of Tiki, 2007’s Tiki Modern and last year’s Tiki Pop — says the exact origin of the mug is “shrouded in mystery,” most likely evolving from the elaborate drink presentations of South Seas watering holes and first seen in the United States at Don the Beachcomber's original location. “[Their] drink garnishes were so impressive that first-time guest Salvador Dali believed they had been especially created for him, the surrealist artist,” Kirsten says.
In Tiki Pop, Kirsten describes how Trader Vic’s came up with themed ceramic cocktail vessels — featuring sexy hula girls or in the shape of a human skull — in the pre-tiki-craze 1940s. Trader Vic's commissioned California ceramicist Dickman Walker to create a drink bowl supported by three Marquesan tikis in the '50s, but, says Kirsten, it did not constitute a true tiki mug. “Actual tiki mugs were not used by Polynesian bars until the late '50s and proliferated in the early 1960s, parallel to the peak of the tiki period in Polynesian pop.”
These days "tiki mug” is an umbrella term, used for all ceramic sippers with an island aesthetic. but Kirsten sees it more as an eBay buzzword. “Simply put, a tiki mug should depict a tiki" — which Merriam-Webster defines as "a wood or stone image of a Polynesian supernatural power." Says Kirsen: "A mug depicting a skull is a skull mug, a mug sculpted like a rum barrel is a barrel mug.”
L.A.-based tiki designer Daniel Gallardo takes issue with the term “mug” itself. “It’s functional art, not like something you drink coffee out of,” he says. ”If the artist is doing it right, you should actually have to look for the drinking hole or where to put the straw.”
Tiki Diablo, the company started by Gallardo and his wife, Stephanie, also designs carved tiki statues and décor. His cobra-embellished ones for Tiki Ti (which is planning to reopen in a few weeks) had been highly anticipated for months before their debut.
“They resonate more because they’re commemorative souvenirs," he says. "They evoke childhood and going to these kinds of restaurants, like Bahooka."
Whatever you call them, many tiki mugs will be on display at this weekend's Tiki Caliente, which returns to the Caliente Tropics Hotel after a four-year absence. It has become one of the most popular gatherings of its kind among L.A.'s tiki crowd. And yes, there’s a mug for that — three, in fact.
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Tiki Caliente’s creator, Rory Snyder, says each of the commemorative mugs, made by John and Janet Mulder of Eekum Bookum, has significance: One is for this year’s event (in the shape of an octopus designed by Doug Horne), one celebrates the hotel’s 50th anniversary (fashioned after a tiki statue on the property grounds) and one depicts a Mark V diver’s helmet (to celebrate the undersea headpiece’s 100th anniversary). A little more than 200 of each have been made.
Snyder made his mugs available via pre-order on an escalating tier, with the price going up as more of the design was revealed. The first pre-orders were made based on only the sketches, then on the molds and finally on the finished products. "Tiki mugs are vessels celebrating life and indulging in music, art, drinking, eating and just hedonistic behavior," Snyder says. "They're really mementos of indulging.”