Inside the Magical World of Tiki Kon

At Portland's annual celebration of Polynesian-pop fantasy, anyone with a love of Hawaiian shirts and rum can live the good life, if just for a weekend. Real-life tiki god Martin Cate—owner of San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove—takes us inside the tropical fever dream that is Tiki Kon.

A midcentury Pan Am bag—a steal on the Tiki Kon Tiki Kon vending floor, a pop-up tiki bazaar held at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver, where everything from tropical jewelry to vintage dresses to housewares can be found.

Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove, and friends pile into the "Tiki Kon Air" bus and hit the Portland home tiki bar trail.

Tiki enthusiast John Kunkel (left) and a tiki tourist in a festive blonde mullet (right).

A signpost for one of the tour's home tiki bars.

Couples in their matching tropical regalia, à la Hawaiian newlyweds.

Cate hits the Tiki Kon bazaar in the hopes of expanding his vintage shirt collection.

Tropical cocktail accouterments (left). Put a tiki god on it (right).

A collection of vintage Polynesian jewelry.

Dean Curtis, a DJ and jet-setter from the Bay Area, trying on a string of tiki skulls (left). Tiki enthusiasts John and Vanessa Kunkel buckling up for a weekend of tiki (right).

Bartenders Sierra Kirk of Hale Pele (left) and Mike Treffehn of Rum Club (right) competing in the Iron TikiTender bartending competition.

A couple of limited edition sea turtle punch bowls by Munktiki with elaborate garnish, as is the tiki way.

Drinks at the Tiki Kon gala (left) and Iron TikiTender winner Sierra Kirk in full tiki garb.

Cate harnessing the power of the tiki gods.

On a recent Sunday morning in the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon, a bus pulled up to Trader Vic’s. One by one the passengers disembarked, forming what appeared to be a tropical, midcentury bouquet with human heads for blossoms. Draped in wild floral prints and accessorized with orchids, bright bauble jewelry and Panama hats, the group looked as if it had time-traveled back from some West Coast suburban enclave where luaus were the requisite social currency.

“We really cannot be missed,” says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove, a modern-day tiki bar in San Francisco. “Even in a town that celebrates weirdness, we were enough to turn a head.”

On that morning, Cate and this merry band of Polynesian wayfarers were wrapping up the final day of Tiki Kon, a weekend-long celebration of the “tiki lifestyle.” Beyond the initial lure of tropical cocktails, tiki has regained a foothold with some of the country’s oddest of balls—history buffs that revel in weird Americana, nostalgia-freaks who crave a good midcentury ensemble, bartenders with an interest in esoteric drinks and interior design-minded dreamers. And like Comic Con—minus the superheroes, plus a few totemic gods—Tiki Kon draws all of these demographics into one rum-swigging group and indulges their deepest, most floral-patterned desires.

What began 13 years ago as an informal outing with friends has become an annual event—complete with drum performances, a fashion show, a bartending competition and a luau—for this offbeat little circle that spends much of its time transforming bits of the surrounding world into little slices of paradise. The first Tiki Kon was nothing more than an unofficial tour of some of Portland’s home tiki bars—quite literally, tropical bars that enthusiasts have built and fostered within their own homes.

“You see this sense of preservation,” says Cate, describing some of the wondrous bars he’s seen. Not only are the original details of these midcentury gems carefully restored, but the spaces are often outfitted with mini Polynesian fantasy worlds. Hidden within dozens of spare rooms, garages and basements across Portland are a trail of tiki bars operating as homespun oases of escape.

Among them there’s the Black Cat, a gothic-style tiki bar with a coffin for a coffee table; a 3,800-square-foot bachelor pad with two or three wet bars that was built for a 1950s airline captain; and the house out of which ceramic company Munktiki operates, kitted out with a kiln and killer collection of skull- and goblin-adorned glassware. Still other homes feature lava rock formations, waterfalls and coin ponds, like sets straight out of The Goonies.

In Portland “there’s a lingering cultural memory,” says Cate, explaining that it was the first “tiki battleground” where rivals Trader Vic and Stephen Crane opened competing bars (Trader Vic’s and Kon Tiki) during the sweeping explosion of Polynesian establishments post-World War II. Not only is there a vibrant underground scene, but Portland also supports a number of wacky tiki bars, including Hale Pele (indoor rain shower alert) and the old school Alibi. Having shrugged off the traditional conventions of many American cities and suburbs, Portland seems a fitting place to carry on the peculiar, often cerebral tiki fervor.

Though packaged with a kitschy annual theme, Tiki Kon’s aim isn’t necessarily to appropriate scenes of a bygone era, mining it for dusty, garishly colored ephemera. Rather, it’s sought to provide the same kind of experience as its tiki forebears—a departure from the tedium of everyday life where an indoor waterfall trickles, a flaming punch bowl burns bright and a bunch of rum-loving weirdos can wear floral costumes with all the delight of newlyweds on a Hawaiian honeymoon.

MORE TIKI:

Five New-School Tiki Drinks
Reports of Tiki’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Diagnosing the Tiki Psyche
Rejiggering Tiki for the 21st Century
More Is More: The Evolution of Tiki Garnish
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Tiki Fern
Inside LA’s Tiki Underground
Bali H’ai to Bourbon Street and Back: NOLA’s Tiki Love Affair

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