Wearing his trademark fedora, an uncomfortable pair of ostrich leather shoes and a gold-toothed grin that won’t stop, the artist Brad “Tiki Shark” Parker is having a good night.
The Kona Oceanfront Gallery in Kailua-Kona is filled with his friends, fans and patrons, who lavish hugs and handshakes upon him as he moves about the room. This is the gallery that gave Parker’s tiki-themed pop surrealist paintings a chance when other Hawai‘i Island galleries told him tiki was dead. Initially his paintings were hung on the back wall. They sold well there, so they were moved to the middle of the gallery. They sold even better there, so they were moved to the front. Before long Parker was hanging in the front window, his grinning tikis and movie monsters on Hawai‘i vacations displacing the dolphins, whales and seascapes that had dominated the space.
Parker’s latest work is something very different. It’s on exhibit tonight for the first time, hanging on the wall beside a man seated at a table and dressed as a chef. There are no tikis this time, but rather a series of animals (lobster, crab, turtle, fish, rooster, pig) rendered as tribal tattoos and printed on dish towels. This is not conceptual art, like Duchamp’s urinal, meant to highlight the precedence in art of ideas over objects. These are actual dish towels, meant for sopping up spills and wiping down counters. The man sitting next to them is not a performance artist playing a chef. He’s a well-known actual chef, Sam Choy. And in spite of all the art collectors milling around with wine and hors d’oeuvres, this is not an art opening. It’s a product rollout party for Sam Choy’s new line of “luxury kitchen accessories,” i.e., dish towels featuring Parker’s designs.
Decorating kitchen accessories might seem like an odd move for someone desiring the art world’s recognition, but it makes perfect sense in Parker’s vision of his role as an artist. His Polynesian pop cartoonland paintings draw from kitsch, elevating it to art. Why shouldn’t his art-work work its way back down the scale to become kitsch? Especially if it’s Hawai‘i souvenir kitsch. “I’m doing this because I want to be part of the flavor of Hawaiiana,” he says. “I want to touch the mass collective tourist mind.” As it turns out, kitchen accessories are a major category in Hawai‘i’s souvenir market.
Parker is one of the foremost artists of the so-called tiki revival, the resurgence of interest in the mid-twentieth-century pop cultural phenomenon that firmly planted umbrella drinks, Trader Vic’s restaurants and Martin Denny music into the mainstream. The phantasmagorical world he creates in his paintings is filled with impossible creatures—tiki mugs come to life, a cat playing an ‘ukulele, a witch in a grass skirt with octopus tentacles for legs, a giant tiki with superhero abdominals battling Godzilla over Diamond Head. Pop culture references abound. In “Werewolf of Waikiki,” part of a series putting classic movie monsters on vacation, Parker’s wolfman sports Steve McGarrett’s curling hairdo and plays a bongo drum on Waikīkī beach. In “Bela Lugosi Has a Zombie,” the actor who personified evil in the 1930s and who starred in Hollywood’s original zombie movie enjoys the cocktail known as a zombie; meanwhile, in the distance, a zombie waiter approaches with a fresh round of drinks.
Parker’s original paintings are often snapped up by collectors before he even finishes them. His giclée-on-canvas prints sell in the gallery for up to $7,000. The same imagery is widely reproduced in other formats, including skateboard decks, bodyboards, shopping bags, beach towels, calendars, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets and shot glasses. In other words, souvenirs. Walk into any ABC Store, Hawai‘i’s most prevalent gift shop, and you’ll find Brad Parker printed on something. “A lot of artists would be horrified to be in ABC Stores,” Parker says. “For me, being part of souvenir culture is an honor. That’s art for the masses, art as it should be. That’s getting into the culture, getting injected into the machine. Being on a skateboard deck that’s hanging in someone’s basement tiki bar, for me that’s like being in the Louvre.”
Born in Southern California in 1961, Parker grew up in a world filled with comic books, B movies, TV shows and rock ’n’ roll. Pop culture is his culture, and as an art student at UCLA in the 1980s, that’s where he found his muse. “I don’t understand splattery, nonrepresentational painting,” he says. “But a cartoon—I get why that’s good.” He studied the painting techniques of the old masters and applied them to cartoon subjects, trying to make them as realistic as he could. But his painterly portrayals of robots, superheroes and mystic kung fu warriors did not go over well with the faculty’s splattery nonrepresentationalists. In an advanced painting course, an instructor berated him in front of the class. As Parker recalls, “He told me, ‘I cannot teach you! You are not an artist! You are an illustrator.’”
Parker took the criticism to heart. He dropped out of art school and went to work as an illustrator. His career has included jobs inking comic books, designing product logos, creating characters for video games and doing storyboards and other production design in Hollywood. Highlights of his movie career include designing the monster for the horror film Jeepers Creepers and working side by side with celebrated directors such as Rob Zombie, with whom Parker collaborated on a music video for the singer Ozzy Osbourne. In the comic book industry he rose to the top, working for both Marvel Comics and DC Comics. For DC he illustrated a graphic novel featuring the Green Lantern superheroes. The project was supposed to take six months but ended up taking three years to complete. “Because I’m a perfectionist I’d sit there and go, ‘Uh, that doesn’t look right—I’ve got to get the lighting better. It’s got to be more dramatic,’” he recalls. “I realized I was trying to do fine art in the commercial art world, when what I should be doing was gallery stuff.”
In the meantime, Parker had discovered the work of painter Robert Williams, godfather of “lowbrow art.” Williams coined the lowbrow term to describe an emerging visual movement steeped in the raucous, psychedelic Southern California youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Originally spurned by the art establishment, lowbrow gradually gained acceptance, with influential dealers embracing some of the artists and institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art holding exhibits. Williams’ work and the notion of lowbrow art thrilled Parker and caused him to realize that his college painting instructor was wrong to dismiss him as a mere illustrator. Parker started to paint again, picking up where he had left off after dropping out of art school and incorporating elements from the tiki revival, which he had developed a fascination for.
Parker recalled reading some advice for painters who are starting out: “You need to give yourself ten bad paintings,” he says. “Ten paintings you wouldn’t show your mother. Otherwise, you’ll be too hard on yourself and you won’t paint anything.” Parker did his ten bad paintings, but they actually turned out pretty well. A friend, Abbas Hassan, encouraged Parker to hang them in an informal art show. Hassan was renting a house in Hollywood with hardwood floors, bare white walls and scarcely any furniture. It already looked like an art gallery, so the show was held there. Parker hung his “bad” paintings along with some of his storyboards, sketches and other miscellaneous work. He invited his film industry and tiki revival friends, and Has-san invited his friends. Within forty-five minutes every single piece sold. “We actually started changing the prices during that forty-five minutes,” Parker says. “The first painting sold for $50, and by the end I think they were going for $1,500—and it hadn’t slowed anybody down. Abbas looked at me afterward and said, ‘Hmm. I think you should keep painting.’”
Convinced that he was in fact an artist, and encouraged by the commercial success, Parker gave up Hollywood and moved to Kailua-Kona in 2006 to paint full time. “I reached a point where I wanted to realize my own vision instead of helping others realize theirs,” he says. The move had a noticeable impact on his art, with the ocean he saw every day filling his backgrounds and Kona’s brilliant red sunsets lighting up his skies. Even his tikis became more Hawaiian looking, with their grins and grimaces hinting at the classic Kona style of ki‘i (carved images). But here he treads carefully, taking pains to make it clear that he’s not attempting to portray the real thing. “I don’t want to misrepresent Hawaiian culture,” he says. “That’s been misrepresented enough. I’m actually having fun by reinterpreting the misinterpretations.”
Parker did not move to Hawai‘i alone. Hassan joined him, and the two formed a business, Tiki Shark Incorporated. Parker creates the art and designs, and Hassan finds products to put them on. Hassan, who has business connections throughout the Middle East and whose family runs a textile factory in Pakistan, practices his own art—the art of the deal. It’s a fruitful partnership, and one that offers Parker a direct route into the souvenir culture where he hopes his work will live on long after he is gone. “I want to eventually be in somebody’s garage sale,” he says. “I want to be grandma’s beach towel. I want to be that thing your Aunt Tuti brought back from Hawai‘i, and you’re looking at it as a little kid going, ‘What the hell is Frankenstein doing on a beach?’ I want to be that thing that people wonder at.”
Even before the first set of Sam Choy luxury kitchen accessories is rung up at a cash register, Parker’s next contribution to souvenir culture—a set of small “tiki toys,” actual tikis like the ones in his paintings—is well under way. As for his fine art, he is scheduled to do a show in July at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles, the flagship gallery of lowbrow art. At the show he plans to present the step-by-step process involved in creating his tiki toys, from the production sketches to the drawings, all the way through to the finished products. He will also paint a few sets of the tiki toys at the gallery and sell them at fine-art prices, “thus completing my task as a tiki artist by taking what is considered Hawai‘i kitsch and making it worthy of being shown and purchased in an art gallery,” he says.
Of course, the tiki toys will eventually be available at ABC Stores. From there they will spread out into the world, traveling the globe in suitcases, turning up in garage sales, and for decades to come causing people to wonder, What the hell is this? HH
Story by David Thompson. Photos by Jay Watson.