If you live in Seattle and have spent some time at Rumba or The Diller Room you have seen Tony Canepa’s artwork. It’s truly beautiful! Tony used to live in Seattle but has since moved down to Austin Texas. It sounds like there isn’t much Tiki going on down there but maybe Tony’s tiki art will give someone inspiration to build something great! Here is Tony’s story…
What’s the Tiki Scene like down in Austin Texas?
Tony- A few bars have tiki nights and a few have tiki classics on the menu, but most tiki fans in Austin lament that we are missing that one great place to convene on a regular basis. That being said, I think that may drive people to create something special on their own. Texas Tiki Week is growing every year and there are some great home bars in the area too. Recently I was lucky enough to visit the Moai Icehouse, which could be the best home bar I have ever been to.
What brought you into the ‘Tiki lifestyle’ and how long has it been part of your life?
Tony- Thinking back on this, and doing a little “Tiki-CSI”, my first collision with tiki culture was at around 12 years old. My father went on a business trip to Hawaii and brought only suits. His normal three-piece was too formal for a sales meeting in Hawaii, so he went out and purchased an aloha shirt. Upon his return I quickly swiped it and it became one of my favorite things to wear, and somewhat of a trademark in school.
After that, I attended college in Las Vegas and was lucky enough to experience the Venus Lounge at the Venetian along with the adjoining Taboo Cove bar. Venus had a fantastic, atomic 60’s vibe with a number of giant Shag originals, and Taboo Cove was put together by Bosko and was my first real tiki bar. At the same time I randomly purchased some exotica records because I dug the covers and ended up really liking the music too. But even having all of these clues, I wasn’t fully aware of the whole culture behind it.
What broke the code for me was moving to Dallas, and in 2006 the reopening of a 60’s Trader Vic’s at the Palomar (formerly Hilton) Hotel. I went with a friend and had my first taste of a real, 1944 Mai Tai. Tasting that drink, sitting in one of the world’s most gorgeous tiki bars, it all came together for me. I could see the complete package of the cocktails, music, clothing, decor and art…and after that, it was over for me! I would take everyone I knew to that Traders Vic’s, knowing they would be blown away by the experience. I started trying to replicate the cocktails at home and digging deeper and deeper into the history and culture.
What sparked your interest in being a tiki artist?
Tony- In job as an illustrator, graphic designer and creative director, I have always looked to midcentury art and design for inspiration. I love crisp, beautiful vintage advertising and the optimism and appeal of the illustration. I would gravitate toward MCM and googie architecture even before I knew what it was.
Tikis were another fun element of that space, so even early in my career I would slip one into some artwork here and there simply because I wanted to draw them. Now, when I am given the opportunity to create full-tilt tiki art for clients, it is like a dream come true.
Who or what would be some of your influences?
Tony- From an early age, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by Little Golden Books and other midcentury children’s books my parents had from their youth or picked up at used bookstores. I love the timeless quality of books from this era and I still reference them on a regular basis.
Growing up, the first artist I ever saw incorporate tiki into his art was Mitch O’Connell. My small-town library in Colorado had copies of his early books and discovering them had a huge impact on me as a kid. He was the first artist I could spot by style alone, and I would look for his illustrations in the newspaper or magazines, confirming it by spotting the distinctive “M O’C” signature.
Comic book artists like Darwyn Cooke, Jack Kirby and Jack Davis are great examples of how to tell a story in a drawing while making it clear and dynamic.
Playboy cartoonists Erich Sokol and Jack Cole (and really everything about the 1960’s Playboy aesthetic) have been a big influence. Sokol and Cole are masters of effortlessly combining caricature, sexiness and humor within stunning environments.
Beyond that, golden age advertising illustration, menus, travel posters, Warner Brothers and UPA cartoons and of course the plethora of fantastic tiki artists, carvers and sculptors who are producing work today!
Can you talk about some of the projects you have done, like menus, glassware, etc?
Tony- A few years back, my good friend and manager of Seattle’s Rumba, Kate Perry, was kind enough to ask me to do the illustrations for their tiki menu. This was my first official tiki assignment, and it was for my favorite bar, so I could not have been happier. What I started as small illustrations of the drinks became full-fledged paintings (as I tend to overdo things when I am excited). The resulting menu turned out so well that each illustration became an art print too!
After seeing the Rumba menu, Diller Room bartender Justin Wojslaw reached out about the possibility of doing a menu for him. Though the menu was put on hold, we ended up creating the Diller Room zombie glass instead. Justin and owner Rob gave me a huge amount of freedom on the glass design and I worked hard to make something special. People really connected with that one and it has been exciting to see photos pop up from around the worked with people enjoying it.
Based on the success of the glass, I got the green light for a full Diller Room tiki menu. I got to go all out on this one creating five new drink paintings and a fully illustrated placemat. My goal was to create something that was on par with the best tiki menus (past or present) and I am extremely proud of the results.
One of my favorite collaborations to date is the matchbook I created for Hidden Harbor in Pittsburgh, PA. Owner Adam Henry and his team have curated an incredible line-up of artists for the bar and I was thrilled to be included. Adam wanted a matchbook that patrons would question whether it was new or vintage. We both dug deep researching classic matchbooks and pulled together common elements that made something from that time period fell “right”. We settled on a hula girl with a bowl drink on the front, and on the back an exterior view of the restaurant paired with a drawing of Crazy Al’s custom tiki that anchors the bar’s interior. I find it amazing that guests get to take home a tiny piece of my art every single night.
Most recently, I created three pieces of holiday art for STOLEN Spirits. This was a fun and challenging experience where I was able to combine tiki with classic holiday traditions and STOLEN Smoked Rum.
What is your favorite Tiki drink? Why?
Tony- I think I have to go with the 1934 Zombie. The subtle complexity of flavor is second to none and frankly any drink with Lemon Hart 151 tends to be on my favorites list.
What is your favorite Tiki bar?
Tony- The Dallas Trader Vic’s was my favorite tiki bar experience and like anyone’s first love it has a special place in my heart. The bamboo walls had this luminous, golden brown patina I have never seen replicated anywhere else. It also had tall wraparound booths where you could get cozy with a date.
The Mai Kai is in a class by itself, in terms of scale and I love how layered it all is. Any line of sight always has at least three layers you look through, and each one has different light, color and texture.
Though this may not be a tiki bar, Rumba in Seattle, is one of my favorite places to get a drink. Their daiquiris are what educated me on the foundation of rum drinks.
What does the future hold for you?
Tony- Fortune and glory, Dr. Jones! I have some fun projects on the horizon for clients plus some personal work of my own. There will be new glasses, art and a couple of other top-secret things I am excited to share in the New Year.
Anything else you would like to add?
Tony- I just want to thank everyone in the tiki community who have been so enthusiastic about my art. It is genuinely special when I see people enjoying something I created, whether they are drinking out of it or hanging it on their wall. I love the sense of fun and creativity that permeates tiki culture and I count myself very lucky to be a part of it.
Here is Tony Canepa’s website.