In the dark corners of a North Trail dive, a uniquely American art movement lives on.
It looked harmless enough. The photo showed an oversized sandblasted wooden tiki mask, standing 6 feet tall and sporting a toothy, ear-to-ear grin. Its various ornamental details were painted in a day-glo palette of bright, beachy hues — fuchsia, lavender and baby blue.
The Bahi Hut, a longstanding North Trail tiki bar, recently posted the picture to its Facebook page as a preview of some new décor that management had in the works.
Its caption invited fans of the late-night hub, known for its stiff drinks and unpretentious atmosphere, to weigh in.
“What do you think?”
More than 100 commenters from around the country flocked to the post to weigh in.
The reaction? Resounding disapproval, to put it lightly. Tiki purists and Bahi diehards didn’t mince words with their cries to not ruin their beloved bar.
As it turns out, tiki culture is alive and well. And it has a passionate, outspoken following, not to mention a strict set of standards for authenticity.
Enthusiasts travel across the country — even internationally — to visit one of the last of the country’s original tiki bars.
And in the Bahi Hut, Sarasota lays claim to one of the few remaining in the country. Along with the Mai -Kai in Fort Lauderdale, it’s the only one in the state.
Almost entirely untouched since it opened in 1954, the Bahi Hut, for many, is a reminder of a simpler time. It’s also a relic of a uniquely American pop-art movement that quietly faded away almost as quickly as it swept the country in the 1950s and ’60s.
An American Art Form
Sven Kirsten boasts an impressive title. As the author of the out-of-print and sought-after book, “The Book of Tiki,” the German-born, Los Angeles-based cinematographer is considered an authority on all things tiki.
His book, published in 2000, was the first to introduce the concept of American tiki culture as an art movement, and it spawned a revival among enthusiasts.
He recalls what first drew him to tiki, as a film student in the early 1980s.
“I came upon these images of these rather square-looking midcentury Americans posing with pagan idols,” he says. “It fascinated me. I started collecting tiki as I could afford it. I found a great store. The first time I went, I got a mug; the second time, a carved tiki pole. The third time I went, it had closed. I had this feeling of loss, and it spurred me to dig deeper.”
Kirsten says authentic tiki, which enjoyed its heyday in the American 1950s and ’60s — not only in bars and restaurants, but also in apartment
architecture and everyday living room furniture — exists as a sort of cultural and artistic oxymoron.
Its authenticity lies in its inauthenticity.
“Like a game of telephone, what came back after the Western world discovered Polynesia was already embellished and idealized,” he says. “From there, people in the United States put their own touch on tiki. It became synonymous with leisure. It was never meant to be a reflection of the real Polynesian culture. It was an homage — a dream of a south seas paradise.”
So what exactly constitutes authentic tiki? It’s complicated. But there are a few main criteria.
Its stylistic elements must have roots in oceanic culture — be it Hawaii, Tahiti, Easter Island or the Polynesian Triangle. It also must incorporate modernist design, juxtaposing ancient island culture with midcentury American sensibilities. And when it comes to the carved tikis themselves, paint is out of the question. Natural wood is the only acceptable color.
Of course, the resulting tiki bars, filtered through an American lens, were a far cry from the actual cultures they imitated. But, Kirsten says, that’s part of the point.
“Americans were kind of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he says. “They didn’t care if it wasn’t the authentic version of someone else’s culture, and it wasn’t a colonial attempt to appropriate it. It was a true homage to Polynesian culture and art.”
As the trend faded in popularity, tiki bars became less common. By the 1980s, they were all but a thing of the past.
“People remembered this movement like it was some sort of dream,” he says. “They weren’t sure it really happened. It disappeared with a whimper. Nobody had classified it as an art movement.”
A Sarasota Time Capsule
The Bahi Hut claims to be the fourth-oldest traditional tiki bar in the country.
To some, it might be the “Bye-Bye Hut,” or that smoky North Trail dive where you test the strict two Mai Tai limit.
But as evidenced by the swift pushback to the bar’s social media post, it holds a special place in many patrons’ hearts.
Scott Spear, a local ambassador to tiki culture, has been coming to the Bahi Hut since he was an art student in 1978. He says the bar reached out for his advice.
“When I saw the Facebook post, I went to the owner and said, ‘You can’t do this,’” says Spear. “I even donated a carved tiki from my own collection. We talked, and he’s completely dedicated to maintaining the history of the Bahi Hut.”
Spear, who previously worked in museum restoration, is working with Jim Beg, whose company, MEB Capital Inc., owns the bar, to ensure any updates to the bar are authentic.
“He calls me Bahi Hut’s curator,” Spear says with a laugh.
Beg says the social media post came from a manager who no longer works for the bar.
With Spear’s help, he says the goal is to make small improvements to carefully restore the bar to its former glory.
Plans include two 8-foot tiki carvings by Tampa carver Jeff Choinard, to be placed outside the door; restoring the deteriorating fiberglass panels on either side of the entrance; adding medium-sized tikis around the top of the bar; and possible traditional additions to the cocktail menu.
The existing drinks, Spear assures, will remain the same.
“We’re not touching the Mai Tai,” he says. “People love it. It’s a secret recipe that very few people know. It has nothing in common with an actual Mai Tai, but nobody cares. It’s a tradition.”
Also being considered is a new roof and reigniting the torches on the roadside sign.
Whatever the changes, Beg says they will be minor, and most importantly, authentic.
“We have people who fly in from all over the world to visit the Bahi Hut,” he says. “There used to be a tiki bar in almost every Florida city. Now we’re one of just two. A lot of things have changed in Sarasota, but this is one of the few things that hasn’t. It’s like walking into a time capsule.”