Tiki carvings are depictions of Polynesian gods which can be found in many Polynesian cultures across the Pacific Ocean. These carvings take the form of stylized human figures which usually have big eyes, grimacing mouths, and arms crossed over their stomachs. Early European visitors to the South Pacific were fascinated by the tiki carvings they encountered, as numerous drawings and engravings of tiki art made by visitors to the South Pacific starting around the 1700s indicate. In an era when international travel was challenging and time-consuming, owning tiki carvings was also a status symbol.
According to Polynesian stories, the first man, Tiki, was also a god, who made humans in his image. Tiki carvings depict the god, and they are used in religious ceremonies and as tokens which are meant to bring good luck. They vary widely in size, from miniature carvings worn as necklaces to towering versions which stand near the entries to villages. Tiki themes may also appear on plates and other household implements.
Wood and stone can both be used for tiki carving, with wood being a classic choice because it is readily available on many Pacific islands. The styles of the figures varies slightly, depending on the region where they are made, and many carvers continue to produce tiki sculptures in the traditional style. The Polynesian tiki should not be confused with the epic Moai sculptures of Easter Island, incidentally.
While the tiki carving may have religious significance to Polynesians, in the 1970s, it acquired decorative significance on the West Coast of the United States, when “tiki culture” began to explode. Tiki carvings became the center of a decorating style which included other elements considered “Polynesian,” ranging from bamboo furniture to palm frond umbrellas. The famous Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland is a great example of this style, and tiki culture continues to thrive in many regions along the West Coast.
Decorative tiki carvings are often meant to be kitschy and a little hokey, as is tiki culture in general. While people may have taken the decorating scheme seriously in the 1970s, it is used more tongue-in-cheek now, with tiki-themed events, homes, and bars being organized around fun-loving attitudes. Attendees at tiki parties are often obliged to dress up in Hawaiian shirts, palm skirts, and other homages to Polynesian culture, with people drinking pineapple juice and other tropically-themed beverages and eating Polynesian foods in keeping with the theme.