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Tiki Can Go to Hell

Doom Tiki, a pop-up that remixes metal with tropical drinks, is challenging the genre’s prevailing aesthetic, and offering a more enlightened, subversive path forward for the category along the way.

Satanic crosses and pentagrams are far from the typical trappings of tiki. But then again, Doom Tiki is not your typical tiki concept. The monthly pop-up housed (in pre-pandemic times) at Paradise Lounge—a rum shack–inspired bar in Queens, New York, replete with rattan lamps, vintage booze paraphernalia and a large shark figurine suspended above the backbar—invites guest bartenders from across the country to serve nontraditional tiki cocktails against a backdrop of the slow, guitar-heavy drone of doom metal music.

Since its inception in July 2019, Doom Tiki has acted as a counterpoint to the prevailing tiki aesthetic, and has become a guiding light for the category’s future along the way. Its founders, veteran New York bartenders Austin Hartman and Chockie Tom, were motivated by the genre’s persistent issues of cultural appropriation and overt racism.

Tom, whose background is Pomo from California and Paiute Walker River from Nevada, describes the tiki aesthetic as having been omnipresent in Southern California where she grew up, the daughter of “a surfer dude.” “There’s a lot of pop culture there—like rockabilly, surf or garage rock—and it all kind of bleeds into the whole tiki thing,” she says. In particular, Tom recalls regular visits to Tiki-Ti, the famed Los Angeles bar, which shaped some of her reservations about the category. “I realized that I was more interested in the midcentury aesthetics and the cocktails, and was always kind of uncomfortable with … the representation [of Indigenous people and culture].”

Hartman, co-founder of Cane Club Collective, a rum education initiative, and owner of Paradise Lounge, says that the apparition of tiki hovers over his bar, simply by nature of its association with the category of rum. “I’m a rum person and by default tiki is part of that,” he explains. “But the ethos of Paradise [Lounge] was always ‘We’re a rum bar—not a tiki bar.’” To this end, Doom Tiki became a way to confront some of the category’s ghosts.

The pop-up series provided a platform to emphasize nonappropriative or exploitative iconography—moai mugs and hula dancer neon signs—and invite scrutiny toward the genre’s treatment of colonized cultures. In doing so, it challenges tiki’s status quo, in particular, the gatekeeping old guard that often acts as arbiter of a made-up culture never meant to be so staunchly delineated in the first place.

At a Doom Tiki event you might get a baijiu-based cocktail in a cat-shaped mug hand-painted with an inverted cross. In its own way, this mashup of nontraditional drinks, tongue-in-cheek imagery and doom metal music (“the most bar-friendly, as far as metal goes,” says Tom, who works part-time at Brooklyn’s Polish punk venue Warsaw) is a continuation of the original tiki ethos. Which is to say: pure, absurd fantasy.

“Tiki is not a real culture,” explains Tom. “It’s not this Pasifika-run cocktail experience, sharing things in a respectful manner,” she says. More often, it’s rife with exploitative images of brown women paired with totems transformed into kitsch, and fueled by copious amounts of rum designed to be consumed by an exclusively white audience. To protect such a concept is, in Tom’s words, “ridiculous.”

If Doom Tiki illustrates anything, it’s that paradise isn’t one size fits all, and the genre has the potential to be, at its core, inclusive and just as transportive as any chimera dreamed up by Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic. Mihir Kelkar, one of more than two dozen featured bartenders, drew on his Indian background in his Bounty cocktail, a turmeric-infused Piña Colada designed to pair with bhelpuri, a chaat-style street food popular in his home state of Gujarat; Nickel Morris, an Indigenous bartender who grew up in Diné country in Arizona created a cocktail from Arizona-made whiskey and “super lemon juice” a citrus stock-style ingredient that respects the “use every part of it” Indigenous philosophy; Taylor Adorno developed a roster of drinks inspired by Puerto Rican spiritual traditions. It’s not uncommon for spirits like baijiu, shochu and mezcal to make appearances, expanding the tiki toolkit beyond its classic flavors.

“It’s not cultural appropriation, it’s cultural exchange,” says Tom. She notes that in two decades of bartending she’s only ever had the opportunity to work alongside five Indigenous bartenders; since launching Doom Tiki, she’s worked with four in the span of 12 months. “We didn’t set out for this to happen, but if we look back over the roster of the people that have done Doom Tiki we have curated the most diverse bar staff I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” says Tom.

Exchange is central to Hartman and Tom’s shared vision for a more inclusive tiki—one that allows individuals from different backgrounds to share their culture on their own terms. “There’s this whole romanticized notion of the dusky maiden and the noble savage,” says Tom. “But there’s not a notion that these are normal people.” She notes the disappointment she’s detected when people learn that she does not, in fact, wear buckskins in celebration of her background, and did not grow up on a reservation selling jewelry on the side of the road.

As the series has shifted online in the form of virtual drink-making and tastings under the apt new moniker “Zoom Tiki”, Doom Tiki continues to hold participants accountable. “We’re very clear about our rules for participating: no appropriative mugs, no sexually exploitative mugs,” says Tom. 

If on the surface, mixing elaborate, flaming cocktails in satanic mugs to a soundtrack of doom metal seems the height of absurdity, the group tempers its whimsy with an equal dose of activism. Since its founding, it’s partnered with Mariah Kunkel, co-founder of the Pasifika Project, an organization by and for Oceanic people working in hospitality, to fundraise (or “fund-rage” in Doom Tiki parlance) for over a dozen organizations that give back to Pasifika and Indigenous cultures, including Seed, Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network, and the National Congress of American Indians. It’s an action that takes the reclamation of tiki a step beyond representation by reinvesting in the communities and cultures historically exploited in the name of the tiki fantasy.

As Doom Tiki stakes an identity beyond canonical boundaries, the future of the genre as a whole remains unclear. For Tom, however, one thing is certain: “It’s not going to stay what it is.”

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Tagged: doom tiki, Tiki