Tiki is an American mid-century art style that evolved from the Polynesian Pop style that started roughly in the 1930s with the advent of places like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's. It is often considered to be a part of the kitsch style, but was not intended to be humorous or ironic, but rather an amalgam of the popular ideas of a Polynesian ideal of the time.
Sven Kirsten, the leading proponent of the Tiki Style, argues that it truly began in the mid-1950s, when Polynesian Pop suddenly started to incorporate the tiki as a defining icon. Before that time he calls the style Pre-Tiki, as although it incorporated many of the same design and cultural elements (e.g. bamboo, Pacific island decor and artifacts, exotic plants, etc), the tiki was merely another element of design that was part of the gestalt as opposed to being a unifying thematic image. So while Tiki Style incorporated many of the elements that came before, it was the sudden use of the tiki as an identifying icon that defined the new style. It suddenly appeared and was used not only as architectural decoration, but also on matchbooks, menus, swizzle sticks, and of course the iconic tiki mug.
Kirsten argues that the style started its decline (or “devolution”) in the 1970s. The public's need for island escapism was dramatically altered by the onset of the Vietnam war. As the ideas that made up the concept gradually changed, the style itself became diluted enough that it eventually lost its defining elements and, as a result, Tiki Style rapidly declined and was nearly entirely absent from the collective psyche by the 1980s.1) Many of the great tiki locations were torn down or closed during that period, and only a few, such as the Mai Kai, still exist in anything like their former glory.
The Tiki Style saw a revival in the mid-1990s, and was greatly advanced with the publishing of Kirsten's The Book of Tiki. Large public events such as Tiki Oasis in San Diego, Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale, Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, and Ohana Luau at the Lake in Lake George, NY helped establish its a presence, as did retail items such as Kahakai Tiki Rum. Websites such as Tiki Central continue to attract many new visitors every year.
Kirsten's strict adherence to what defined Tiki Style has upset many of the Tiki Revival proponents, as it relegates many of the more modern and popular elements to a rather less defined “Island Style,” including music by people like Jimmy Buffet and popular lowbrow artists. According to Kirsten's strict definition, only items which incorporated a tiki into their design within the Polynesian Pop culture were truly tiki style—items such as aloha shirts, black velvet paintings, Hawaii Five-O, and luaus were merely somewhere along the evolution of Polynesian Pop, but weren't in and of themselves tiki.
I see it this way: Mid-century Tiki was the result of broad, widespread popular awareness and interest in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture in America. This popular base does not exist anymore today, so folks are making up for that by connecting it to other genres. Yet doing so breeds the danger of diluting and bastardizing it. 2)