Tiki’s Goth Streak

In an age where “dark comedy” is merely a synonym for “comedy,” it’s no wonder that tiki has taken a turn towards noir.

Darkness, these days, is a cottage industry. We’ve got dark musical comedies (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), melancholy superheroes (Batman vs. Superman), morose cartoons (BoJack Horseman), noir comic reboots (Riverdale) and studies that point to a record number of contemporary songs written in minor keys. “______ but dark,” could stand in as the tagline for almost any aspect of our current pop cultural moment.

Given our lean-in toward malaise, perhaps it’s fitting that our most beloved fantasy bars have gone a little dark, too.

Consider “goth tiki,” a term writer Camper English bestowed upon a group of establishments that opened last year all with theatrically morbid themes. For example, Last Rites, a new tiki-inspired bar in San Francisco, enacts a “plane-crash-in-the-jungle” theme, with a rickety fuselage ceiling, fraying airline seats and a giant skull embedded in one wall. Owner Justin Lew describes the aesthetic as a nod to “Polynesian noir,” a niche in midcentury pulp adventure novels and Americana. “We wanted to present an immersive concept that sidestepped tiki,” he says.

For decades, tiki has been trending lighter and more evocative of a tropical getaway, says Lew, but he wanted a way to honor the doom and danger in classic tiki without getting into the appropriation of cultural artifacts trope. And perhaps this moody version of tiki is on the rise now because our time seems to call for it. It’s tiki, but the gritty reboot—the drink world’s version of a pop song sung in a minor key.

That this interest in darker iterations of tiki has coincided with the revival of classic tiki may be no coincidence. After all, the midcentury version of tiki was always meant to be mysterious and other-worldly. Daniel “Doc” Parks, the general manager of Zombie Village in San Francisco, says that the intention behind his bar, despite its moniker, wasn’t tiki-noir. “I believed that we have been lumped into that genre because of our name,” he says. Zombie Village was, in fact, designed with classic tiki in mind (its name nods more to the classic Don the Beachcomber creation than the living dead), employing artisans to create woodcarvings and thatched huts. But between the fiber-optic night sky and skull-studded “Voodoo Lounge,” the bar is undeniably suffused with dark elements when juxtaposed with the brighter, banana-leaf-clad iterations of tiki.

At San Diego’s False Idol, a classic tiki revival bar, leaning into tiki’s dark side was intentional. “We wanted to illuminate the mysterious and dark intrigue in design rather than go bright and pastel,” says lead bartender and partner, Anthony Schmidt. He notes that total immersion into a new world was the goal. “It’s so hard to feel ‘lost’ or immersed in a patio bar with a tropical beverage in hand, or in a bright pastel location with art deco shapes and accessible décor,” he says.

How this dark moodiness gets translated into tiki cocktails is a less linear equation; tiki drinks, by nature, are tropical and fruit-forward. But they do have their theatrically morbid monikers—Zombie, Scorpion, Painkiller. Just add an opaque skull mug and the occasional pyrotechnic and you’ve got a crushed ice drink masquerading as a brooding adventure fantasy.

But many tiki drinks are also a solid example of the ambiguous camp-but-serious feeling that infuses so much of dark pop culture. It’s fruity but super high-octane. It’s sweet but served in a skull-mug with dry ice. It has an umbrella garnish but is wickedly complicated to make. And these “goth” tiki bars take those contradictions a step further by dragging the traditional tiki recipes and concepts into the 21st-century bar paradigm. There are high-proof tequila-based tiki-style drinks instead of just rum or a Zombie rebuilt with actual Jamaican ingredients. It’s not unlike Riverdale, the noir Archie comic reboot: modern day sensibilities against a dark, retro set-piece leading to that uncanny feeling of Which decade are we in again?

But the question remains: Why exactly is all of this getting lost in the fantastically morbid so appealing to us now? Looking at the rise in sad pop music may give us a few clues. One theory goes that an aesthetic of sadness and ambiguity rather than just plain-old happy makes us feel smarter, while others say that the Top 40’s tendency toward minor keys is a byproduct of us being more in touch with all of our feelings, both happy and sad. Another posits that pop music is darker because people are worried about “economic struggle and limited prospects for the future.”

There’s certainly an element of escapism to “goth” tiki, as there was when classic tiki was created. The 20th-century tiki experience is often described as an immersive escape from The Great Depression, World Wars and cultural upheaval. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate that logic to our current era of political instability in which we’re equally thirsty for distraction.

But can it really be the same sort of escapist effect given that the audience has changed so much? Bar builders might be able to approximate the phantasmagorical experience of walking into a midcentury bar, but drinkers today know more about the cultures tiki was attempting to evoke. We know more about how the world turned out post-World War II. We know what climate change will do to island communities. And we know the narratives on exploration and colonization have shifted. Today, when we experience the trappings of classic tiki, we may not be looking so much for a tropical island escape as we are role-playing a certain kind of 1950s American ordering a Mai Tai.

And it’s that particular element of “goth” tiki—and by extension, the dark Batman and Archie reboots—that may be the most escapist and melancholy part: It’s a safe darkness because we already know how that era of history or that story turns out—unlike, perhaps, our own.

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