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What are Tiki Carvings?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Hawthorne — On Sep 05, 2011

@malmal - I think the requirements for being a Tiki mask depend on whether you're aiming for authenticity or not. For a Tiki mask to be considered authentic, I would imagine you would have to actually get it from Polynesia, New Zealand or some other place where Tiki culture is still alive.

On the other hand, for your Tiki mask to be authentic Tiki kitsch -- whic it what it sounds like it is to me -- it could be made anywhere, as long as it follows the same Tiki stylistic design.

Tiki kitsch culture is very popular in the United States, and is the reason most people outside of Polynesia and Tiki cultures even recognize what a Tiki mask is. That, and old movies that romanticized the tropical exotic atmosphere, including Tiki carvings.

By aishia — On Sep 04, 2011

@VivAnne - I think the larger-than-life look of Tiki statue designs is why they're so popular, though. Sure, they look goofy to us, but to the ancient tribes who invented them I'll bet they looked powerful.

Bugged out eyes and big toothy mouths made the carvings' faces look fierce, and since the Tiki carvings represented gods and supernatural beings, they were supposed to look larger than life.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the kitschy Tiki culture here in the United States. You know Tiki style stuff is the reason that we have umbrella drinks and other tropical-themed party stuff, right? I wonder if the people from authentic Tiki cultures are offended by kitschy Tiki culture?

By VivAnne — On Sep 04, 2011

Tiki masks are so goofy. With a lot of tribal artwork I always wonder how the people who worshiped it could even take it seriously.

I guess back then they didn't have cartoons, so they couldn't compare Tiki wood carving results with something goofy, but still! Look at the googly eyes and big open mouths with huge teeth on Tiki carvings and tell me you think they look intimidating.

By malmal — On Sep 03, 2011

What are the requirements for something to qualify as a Tiki mask? I have a hand carved Tiki style mask that I got at a thrift store and have been hanging on my wall for years. I like to think it watches over and brings good luck to my computer desk, because it hangs on the wall right next to it.

What I'm curious about is whether my Tiki mask would be considered a "real" Tiki mask even if it isn't from Polynesia. I mean, I get the impression it was hand-carved locally. I found it at a thrift shop. Is it still a Tiki mask, or just an imitation?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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