Why I No Longer Do Tiki Art

Heather Watts

My first exposure to South Pacific art as a child in the 1980s was through the waning lens of American Pop Polynesian culture–Disney’s enchanted Tiki Room, Trader Vic’s restaurant, tourist trinkets from Hawaii. From the cold grey sterility of a rainy Canadian city, these things transported me to an exotic world I fell in love with.

When I stumbled over a group of professional artists online who were making “tiki art” in the early 2000s, I felt like a door had opened for me. As a self-taught amateur artist in my early twenties, I did not yet feel able to express anything particularly sophisticated or challenging in my work, but in “tiki art” I’d found my avenue for experimenting without any of those pressures.

As the years passed and I expanded into other subjects, I gradually began to question the ethics of “tiki.” I knew it was a type of cultural appropriation but the real South Pacific was so far away that the issue felt completely abstract. Still, over time I did less and less “tiki art”, and in 2016 I made the decision I would not do any more in the future.

Behind my decision was the fact that I had gotten to know a local indigenous artist in Vancouver, Canada, who had shared how personally hurtful cultural appropriation is in her own life. With research and reflection I realized I no longer felt comfortable making “tiki art”.

Nevertheless, I think part of being human and specifically being in the arts is recognizing that nothing is black and white, that most of our lives are lived somewhere in the ambiguity between. My decision was a personal one in the context of a complex and difficult issue and is not meant as a judgement against other artists still working in the genre. I hope that anyone interested in American Pop-Polynesian culture who reads this feels empowered to do their own research and reflection on the issue.

Please feel free to contact me personally with any questions about my past work at heather@heatherwatts.com

My newest work is all about the afterlife and you can view it by clicking the images below.