When you hear the word “tiki” or see a tiki symbol, what does it make you think of? Does your mind bring up images of island chants and rituals or foreboding looking statues? There are actually quite a few different ideas behind the Tiki, some of which are related and others which come from widely ranging origins.
One such story surrounding the Tiki is derived from Polynesian mythology which suggests that the hei tiki sculpture represents the embodiment of a god. This sculpture is said to contain a spirit within. Many Polynesian beliefs center on the idea that Tiki was the first man to inhabit the earth. Tikis can be found in many Polynesian countries. For instance, women from the Maori tribes of New Zealand often wear small tikis strung onto a necklace that, when worn around their necks, are said to help stave off infertility.
Another variety of tiki can be found on Easter Island in the form of the giant moia, a series of over 200 sculptures located all over the island. These tikis were at one point idolized by the former inhabitants. The discovery of the moia by Europeans in the early 1720’s, when they were stumbled upon Jacob Roggeveen, touched off centuries of speculation regarding their past. The moia tikis range in size, but many are quite large, with a few estimated to weigh as much as 80 tons.
The tiki became a trendy symbol in the United States around the 1930’s, when clubs, restaurants, and similar hangouts took on a theme imitating the Polynesian culture. These hotspots often had colorful fabrics accenting the tables and walls, rattan furniture, open-flamed torches mounted to the walls and floor, and even tropically-themed alcoholic drinks. The popularity of the Polynesian theme spread throughout the 1930s, and it continued to do so as soldiers from the second World War returned home. Many had actually spent time in Polynesia and the tokens and gifts they brought back to friends and family helped the tiki craze along. Eventually touches of Polynesian culture could be found in many areas of architecture and home decorating, where it lives on as “tiki” style.
The demand for tiki-themed items, parties, and décor hit a second bout of popularity when Hawaii became a part of the United States in 1959. Today, this fad might seem 'cheap' or 'tacky' to some, but it's kitschy and unusual to others. Dinner parties or even your whole home can be transformed into a mystical, carefree atmosphere with a few simple tiki items such as wooden signs, tiki torches, rattan furniture, and even place mats.
Tiki statues can still be found on many islands as a message of greeting to tourists, adorning tee shirts and other souvenirs, and even as logos in local businesses. Tiki symbols may be fashionable, but they will always have a deep-seated meaning to the cultures they represent. While we may feel as though “tiki” is merely a means to imitate the island atmosphere of Polynesia, the roots of this trend run quite deep in ancient Polynesian culture.