The Secret Lives of Tiki Fanatics

A California couple amassed a collection of 10,000 tiki mugs—but they’re not alone in their pursuit.

If Wendy and Dan Cevola opened the windows in their Sacramento area home, jungle-like greenery accompanied by an otherworldly glow would immediately come into street view. From the outside, it looked distinctly like a marijuana grow room. But the Cevolas weren’t growing weed. For the past two decades, the couple has been stocking their home with one of the world’s greatest tiki collections, illuminated by bespoke mood lighting.

“We had to warn the police,” recalls Wendy, noting that their “Jungle Room”—a Rainforest Café lookalike with tiki mugs scattered throughout—ran the risk of rousing suspicion. “We didn’t want them to kick down the door!”

The Cevolas began their tiki collection in 1997, eventually acquiring around 10,000 pieces—mugs, carvings, plates and artwork—worth nearly half a million dollars. While Dan had long been a collector of vinyl records, he made the crossover after picking up a copy of Tiki News (Otto von Stroheim’s seminal tiki publication) on a whim at Tower Records. “[It] totally just clicked with him,” explains Wendy.

As is so often the first step with tiki collectors, the Cevolas began looking for mugs at garage sales. Their first score was a bucket mug from Stockton, California’s The Islander, a tiki hot spot in the 1960s and ’70s. It didn’t take long after that first acquisition for tiki to take over their lives, despite the fact that neither of them particularly liked to drink, apart from a glass of Champagne here and there. Nevertheless, the two would make a point to visit tiki bars on their travels, picking up souvenirs along the way. “We thought of buying tiki mugs the way other people think of going to the movies,” explains Wendy. “You have your entertainment, and then it’s gone. But ours was there to entertain us for years to come.”

Eventually, Wendy, a nuclear medicine technician by day, started designing her own mugs—a topless hulu girl in a coconut “hot tub” in particular has become a sought-after item amongst collectors. (“Men love that one because she’s bigger than a triple-D,” Wendy notes.)

As of two years ago, before they decided to downsize, the Cevolas had built the biggest tiki mug collection in the world. Ceramic mugs and tiki paraphernalia packed their backyard, part of their garage, their dining room, their kitchen, and their family room, where totems surrounded the TV; they were in downstairs bedrooms, upstairs bedrooms, every hallway and, of course, Dan’s “man cave.” A total of 27 7-foot-tall bookcases, spread throughout the house, were packed to the verge of overflow with tiki mugs, numbering in the thousands.

“We have no children and we started thinking, ‘What would it be like for our heirs to deal with this when we pass away?’” says Wendy, who is only 68. Just last year, they decided to downsize, inviting tiki mug collectors over for a series of eight garage sales where they sold around 8,000 items.

At Home With the Cevolas

Their first buyer was a local friend, Vance Klinke, who acquired about 200 pieces to add to his personal mug collection, which now totals just under 800. The regional director of admissions for a college, Klinke has a passion for the work of Michael “Gecko” Souriolle, known for his mixed medium artistry that extends to larger tiki vessels and serving bowls. After having discovered Gecko’s work on Facebook, Klinke reached out to the Hawaiian artist to commission a bespoke item: a Mr. Bony Trophy Skull mug, which has become his most prized piece in the collection.

If the Cevolas collect mugs as souvenirs, Klinke collects mugs for their artistic value. “I particularly enjoy developing relationships with the artists,” he explains, listing other creators he admires, including Scott “Beachbumz” Taylor and “TikiRob” Hawes. “I feel a sense of pride that I can own great examples of their work.”

But it wasn’t just locals who looted the Cevola stash. Eric Allred flew down from his Seattle-area home and returned the same day with a suitcase packed with 40 of their mugs, including some one-of-a-kind Tiki Bob Maori mugs that Wendy herself had made. (Tiki Bob is one of the most ubiquitous styles of mugs, with his dotted eyes and oversize grin.) Unlike the Cevolas, Allred, a Google technical program manager by trade, is a recent tiki convert, but his descent into mug madness has been rapid. Today he has over 600 mugs, many of which live in his “Sneaki Tiki Lounge,” a converted toolshed in his backyard that doubles as a home tiki bar.

Unlike the Cevolas and Klinke, Allred actually drinks out of his collection. “It horrifies other collectors,” he says of using his mugs, some of which are worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. His collection includes a number of designs from contemporary artists, like Munktiki, a family-run manufacturer from Astoria, Oregon, as well as rare and unusual designs like a Boba Fett coconut mug and a zombiefied Skipper and Little Buddy, which certain diehard collectors might view as falling outside the bounds of traditional tiki. But, Allred reasons: “If I can drink a Mai Tai out of it, it’s a tiki mug.”

Not far from Allred, in Lake Stevens, Washington, Jeff Nelson has amassed around 230 mugs, though he takes a different tack—exclusively seeking out vintage tiki mugs from bars that no longer exist. He has one from Aku Tiki, a long-forgotten bar in Lincoln, Nebraska; another from the once-famed Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio. His crown jewel is a crudely made, hand-scratched mug from the Trader Vic’s that was once located in Waikiki. He displays his findings throughout his entire home, which he’s dubbed Hala Kahiki Tiki Hale (Hawaiian for “The Pineapple Tiki House”). With scores of Polynesian artworks adorning the walls, blowfish lamps, wooden parrots and a bamboo ceiling, the space functions as a sort of private club for tiki enthusiasts.

Like Allred, Nelson chooses to use his mugs. “One thing I love is grabbing an old mug, making myself a drink in my home tiki bar, holding it in my hand, and thinking, ‘Gosh, this came from the Bali Hai [in San Diego] in 1962, but now here I am drinking from it,’” he explains. “It makes you feel differently about your cocktail, drinking from something so nostalgic—and such a great piece of art, too.”

For Wendy, however, there is another allure to collecting. “The most fun part is when people come over to our home for the first time, and they see the Jungle Room,” she says. “I still pull out my camera and take a picture, because their mouths just fall open.”

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