ESCONDIDO — For many, tiki art evokes an exotic image of ancient Polynesian tribal culture. But to the famed Escondido artist Bosko Hrnjak, it’s Southern California’s uptake of the art form which has inspired his artistic outlook and output.
Hrnjak, 55, stars in a recently released documentary film, “Bosko and the Rebirth of Tiki,” which had its first screening on July 14 at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Though he grew up in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, he has called Escondido home for decades now and has lived in the same ranch home since 1990.
In an interview with The Coast News, Hrnjak said that his home’s large and sprawling lot of land gives him the space to both display his tiki art pieces, as well as have plenty of space to think about and do his projects. His land also contains a tiki bar, which he says he sometimes uses while hosting guests, but generally serves an exclusively artistic purpose.
With much of his work centering around wood-based pieces, Hrnjak said that he gets most of his wood from San Diego County near Julian via cedar trees, which are decaying due to climate change impacts near the Vulcan Mountain. Much of the other wood he uses, coming from Northern California’s redwood trees, he buys from the store J&W Lumber in Escondido.
During his days as a college student attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Hrnjak said that he became transfixed by tiki art, motivating him to specialize in its creation. After its near-extinction as an art form in the U.S. by the 1970s, Hrnjak explained that interest in it has picked up heavily since the 1990s, with tiki bars and art now a national phenomenon.
Which raises the question: what is real tiki art and culture anyway? And what does an authentic tiki bar have which its knock-off alternatives doesn’t?
For Hrnjak, he sees tiki’s historic roots in the Polynesian Triangle, geographically defined as Hawaii, New Zealand and Eastern Island. Today, the traditional tribal art form continues among indigenous people in all of those places.
There’s a difference, Hrnjak says though, between traditional tiki art and its more modern iteration which took off in the 1930s and into the post-World War II era predominantly in Southern California.
It’s the Southern California version of tiki, the more modern variety made famous by the Los Angeles-area bar named Don the Beachcomber and carried forward by others thereafter, which got Hrnjak excited about creating that art form.
A good tiki bar, according to Hrnjak, has three key traits: authentic tiki décor, the proper and correct tropical music and the alcoholic beverages in that category too. To find Hrnjak’s tiki art, residents must drive to downtown San Diego, where it is most prominently on display at the bar False Idol. That bar, said Hrnjak, is 10,000 square feet and features an equivalent 10,000 square feet of his tiki art and he believe it is San Diego County’s finest example of an operating tiki bar.
Some scholars have critiqued the modern tiki art movement in the U.S. as a form of cultural appropriation, or mishmashing an original indigenous culture into one’s own context and recreating it in a form acceptable to consumers. Asked about the issue, Hrnjak said that while the historic roots of the art form sit in the Polynesian Triangle, he is careful to say he was inspired by the Southern California tiki of recent decades past, also noting that he is cautious not to claim that his art has any baked-in spiritual value.
Critics, however, have heard that argument and dismiss it as a form of “historical amnesia.”
“Such logic traces tiki bars only back to Don’s Beachcomber — the first ever tiki bar, opened in Los Angeles in 1933 — and glosses over the Polynesian origins of the imagery,” Sarah Burke, a columnist for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in a May 2017 article titled, “Abolish the Tiki Bar.” “That murkiness is key for constructing the tiki style, rendering the entire South Pacific a platter of stereotypes and aesthetic tropes to choose from.”
But cultural appropriation or not, tiki culture is here to stay in the U.S. and San Diego County. Hrnjak said he plans to have a vendor booth at the forthcoming Tiki Oasis event in downtown San Diego, set to be held from Aug. 8 to Aug.12 at the Bali Hai and Crowne Plaza hotels and what he describes as the equivalent of “Comic Con for tiki” enthusiasts. It is the biggest tiki-centric event of its type in the world.
Rob Wilson, producer of “Bosko and the Rebirth of Tiki,” told The Coast News that no official wide release date has been set yet for the film. Two clips from the film have been published on Facebook, though, by Wilson.
Here’s a short clip from the beginning of the upcoming documentary “Bosko and the Rebirth of Tiki” which I produced and Kurt Mattila directed/edited.
And it’s entirely appropriate that Jeffrey Berry is featured in this clip because if it weren’t for him and his early championing of Bosko Hrnjak’s work, this film wouldn’t exist.
Interested parties may see the rest of the documentary at the Egyptian Theater this Saturday (tickets available below).
Posted by Rob Wilson on Monday, July 9, 2018
Here’s one last clip from “Bosko and the Rebirth of Tiki” before Saturday’s premiere. Our deep thanks to Sven Kirsten and Jeffrey Berry for taking the time to be part of this film and also digging up some incredible archival material. Enjoy!
Posted by Rob Wilson on Wednesday, July 11, 2018
For his part, Hrnjak says that though he is best known as a tiki artist, his interests in art projects go far beyond tiki and into areas such as photography, other wood carvings and paintings. His work can be purchased online and he takes custom orders.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news ouetlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com.
A native of Wisconsin and graduate of University of Wisconsin, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and nine marathons under his belt. He also has served on the film screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.