When you sip a fruity, rum-spiked cocktail
at a tiki bar, you're simply enjoying a bit of Polynesian culture
(albeit campy) that has long been a source of fascination.
Ever since Captain Cook sailed in the 1770s, the islands of
the South Pacific have captured the imagination of Westerners,
particularly artists and writers like Paul Gauguin, Picasso,
Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. Today, what Americans
think of as generic Pacific-island imagery - tikis, tattooed
warriors, cannibal feasts - originates primarily from the Marquesas
Islands in French Polynesia.
Now, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Eric Kjellgren has
organized the first exhibition of art from this remote and romanticized
archipelago. Opening Tuesday, "Adorning the World: Art of the
Marquesas Islands" displays nearly 80 examples of this striking,
elegant and inspiring art - tiki idols, feathered headdresses,
carved war clubs and coconut shell bowls - that is at once familiar
Marquesan art was made to honor ancestral gods, adorn the
human body (tattoos) and decorate everyday objects. Best-known
and loved, though, are temple figures called tikis. Known to
most of us through tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants, tiki
has come to mean puffer-fish lights, luaus and rum-filled pineapples.
After World War II, American tiki lounges offered escape from
the gray-flannel conformity of suburban life, an enticing, exotic
fantasy based on strong drinks, obliging girls and palm trees.
The popularity of old-school venues like Trader Vic's peaked
in the 1950s, but were passť by the '70s, when most went bust.
Since 9/11, however, tiki culture has been reborn, proving the
Met show timely.
The Met exhibition draws attention to the gap between tiki
fantasies and island realities. Check out the cute little tikis
carved by Marquesan cannibals from the bones of their human
victims. But today, tattooed urban hipsters sip "headhunter"
cocktails from tiki-shaped mugs to the ambient sounds of bird
calls and bongos.
And those tattoos, long the body art of Western sailors, now
adorn celebrities just as they did the noblemen of Marquesan
tribes. But you don't have to be a celebrity or a sailor to
indulge your inner savage at New York's tiki-themed venues.
Enter the high kitsch of the tiki bar, and remember the words
of Picasso: "Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing!"
Otto's Mai Tai
From Otto's Shrunken Head
3/4 oz. light rum
1/2 oz. Myers's rum
Dash Orgeat almond syrup
Dash Triple Sec
Dash lime juice
Place all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Fill
with sour mix. Shake, pour into a tall ceramic tiki mug, then
top with a splash of club soda. Garnish with a slice of lime
and a sprig of mint. (At Otto's they add a paper umbrella, fancy
straw and plastic monkey.)
SIP THE NIGHT AWAY
AT A HIP ISLAND RETREAT
181-08 Union Turnpike, Fresh Meadows, Queens; (718) 380-1918
After the Met, kick back at a different kind of museum: at King
Yum, the clock stopped in 1953, when kitsch was cool. A tropical
fountain flanked by a tiki god greets visitors, and the dining
room boasts surfboard-size tiki masks, fake palm trees, seashell
lamps and bamboo everything. Best mai tai in town.
2845 Richmond Ave. (at Kmart Plaza), Staten Island; (718)
Jade Island's grass-shack booths, murals of Polynesian beaches,
waterfalls, parrots and seriously big tikis provide a refuge
from the landfill and retail sprawl that surrounds it. Untouched
since 1972, this family-friendly restaurant serves sweet cocktails
in traditional tiki mugs.
Otto's Shrunken Head
538 E. 14th St. (between Avenues Aand B), (212) 228-2240
Otto's is a pleasantly seedy hole filled with the requisite
puffer-fish lamps and tiki carvings, but with a personality
all its own. Grab a glow-in-the-dark Pang's Punch and jungle-boogie
to the exotic sounds of Fisherman (Mondays from 9).