Despite the seeming pervasiveness of tiki within the modern bar world, the subculture of Polynesian pop owes its very existence to just a few dedicated forefathers. Among the most lauded is Sven Kirsten, a German-born cinematographer and self-described “urban archeologist,” whose The Book of Tiki: The Cult of Polynesian Pop in Fifties America, published in 2000, is touted as a veritable bible within the genre.
After immigrating to California in 1980, Kirsten studied at both the San Francisco Art Institute and the American Film Institute before beginning work in music video production in Los Angeles. It was then that he became interested in the culture of Polynesian pop in America, which, despite having a decades-long heyday, had faded almost into complete obscurity by the second half of the 20th century. He soon began photographing and collecting tiki artifacts and ephemera, eventually distilling his findings into written works focused not only on tiki’s history, but on the intricacies of its architecture, its design and, of course, its drinks.
Since The Book of Tiki, Kirsten has gone on to publish the follow-up Tiki Modern (2007), focused on the juxtaposition of the tiki aesthetic with midcentury modernism, along with Tiki Pop (2014) and The Art of Tiki (2017), both published in conjunction with exhibitions of the same name, respectively held at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the La Luz de Jesus gallery in Hollywood.
Though Kirsten still works regularly as a cinematographer for German television, he’s best known in Los Angeles as one of the world’s leading authorities on all things Polynesian pop. So what does he do when he’s not consulting on new bars, or designing tiki mugs? Here, Kirsten takes a stab at our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his strangest hobby, the most memorable cocktail he’s ever had and his go-to drink in a dive. —Lizzie Munro
Cinematographer, author, Urban Archeologist with an emphasis on Exotica Americana.
What do want to be when you grow up?
Financially independent so I can pursue all my projects and travel where I need to to document the remnants of the above genre.
Best thing you ever drank:
The Fog Cutter mixed by Tony Ramos at Madame Wu’s in Santa Monica. A Chinese restaurant decorated in ’60s James Bond modern, where Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and I discovered that Ramos was a Don The Beachcomber alumnus.
Worst thing you ever drank:
The cocktails at Spanish tiki bars. A wave of Polynesian bars opened in Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, and they developed their own unique tiki style. Luckily, some still exist, but while they sport amazing artifacts and drink ware, their drinks are basically mixed fruit juices.
First time you ever got drunk:
At the yearly Easter bonfire on our farm in Germany. Kids are allowed to drink apple schnapps. Because it basically tastes like apple juice, you drink a lot—and then you throw up.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
My The Sound of Tiki compilation on Bear Family Records.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Digging up, researching and documenting the weird hobbies of others.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That the culture of old white men, in which I discovered (and still continue to discover) worthy aspects that deserve to be noted, was not really dead yet, and that one would have to endure such a mind-boggling rearing up of its outdated swagger.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Partaking in the opening and drinking of a dusty ’70s bottle of old Hawaiian ti schnapps. It resulted in THE worst brain-splitting hangover I’ve ever experienced.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Snorkeling with the giant sea turtles at the City of Refuge in Hawaii.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I never get requests; I am always the requester. And since I request tiki drinks most of time, they are all weird.
Your favorite bar:
The Tiki Ti on Sunset Blvd. Ground Zero for my diving into the wondrous world of tiki, it is still family-run in the third generation, since 1961. It stuck to its tiki cocktail recipes since before and after the cocktail revival.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
The chicken mole at El Chavo’s next to the Tiki Ti. Great foundation for three Navy Grogs.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Tiki bar: Navy Grog. Regular bar: Old-Fashioned.
I don’t do wine bars.
Tsing Tao beer.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Two Vitamin B and two Motrin before I go to sleep.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The Blue Hawaii. It gave (and still gives) tiki cocktails the image of being syrupy sissy drinks.
The last text message you sent:
“OK, but without his dog”