What is a tiki mug? The artists who make the ceramic cocktail glasses say they’re here to help advance the story of the theatrical tiki. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Tiki culture is about more than expertly crafted cocktails by bartenders – it’s about theatre. The incredibly immersive cocktail bars are like intimate movie sets, filled with collected artifacts that come together to tell a story. But it’s not just about how a tiki bar is decorated: Tiki mugs take the experience to the next level with their intricate and colorful designs.

Have you ever sipped a tropical Zombie cocktail or tasted a lemony Navy Grog? This sensory experience was likely complemented by an intricately designed drinking vessel known simply as a tiki cup. These functional keepsakes have become their own fandom, with legions of collectors hoping to add a touch of kitsch to their own homes.

What is a tiki mug?

Made from ceramic, these colorful miniature works of art were first designed and created in tiki bars and tropical restaurants. Often created to accompany a specific cocktail, the glasses are usually inspired by Polynesian or nautical themes, but in recent times they have expanded to depict pop culture icons such as the mandalorian Fan-favorite Baby Yoda hasn’t been spared from the trend. Today, most tiki bars around the world, like Vic’s Trader in San Francisco, California and Three dots and a dash in Chicago, Illinois, partner with talented mug artists to design pieces exclusive to their properties. Prices for these creations range from $30 to over hundreds for limited lines and vintage pieces.

Where do tiki mugs come from?

The tiki mug dates back to the 1940s and 50s. One of the earliest pioneers of tiki culture was Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. – also known as Trader Vic. As his bar business grew, mugs became a staple.

“Early tiki bars used to decorate everything in the bar – the menus were overdone, [as was] bar decor,” Josh Agle, a tiki artist known professionally as Kisstells Yahoo Life “It was just a natural extension where someone looked at what they were drinking and said, ‘Hey, we can do better.'”

And so, the tiki mug was born.

Shag himself has designed dozens of mugs – from bar exclusives for Disney parks to a star wars collection featuring Chewbacca.

Part of the designer (and collector) mug collection of tiki mugs Shag.  (Photo: Shag)

Part of the designer (and collector) mug collection of tiki mugs Shag. (Photo: Shag)

“I spent the first eight years of my life in Hawaii,” Shag shares. “So I think there’s a subconscious thing there because they were everywhere when I was a kid.”

“I didn’t rediscover them until my early twenties,” he continues, explaining that his revival of the tiki mug was due to a group of friends he enjoyed visiting tiki bars with. “You paid $5 more, and at the time, you have to keep the ceramic mug.”

And so, his tiki collection began. Shag’s collection has since grown to several hundred, most of which are vintage, and he counts Tiki Diablo, Eekum Bookum and Al crazy like some of his personal favorite designers. “I used to have a rule of not paying more than $5 for a cup,” Shag says. “In the 90s, I ditched some really cool mugs because they were $7 – and some of those mugs I never saw again.”

How are tiki mugs designed?

These days, he’s not just a hobbyist, but a designer. “To me, designing a mug is a lot like drawing a blueprint or a character for a cartoon,” Shag explains. Once their design work is complete, the art is sent to a sculptor who will handcraft a mug based on the design before the final render is sent to production.

One of the designs he is most proud of is a mug he created for the 60th anniversary of the iconic Tonga hut in North Hollywood. Complete with two built-in Swizzle sticks, the limited version was sculpted by Eekum Bookum and retails for over $300. He is currently working on a mug for Disneyland’s exclusive Club 33 which is slated for release in 2023.

Disney’s role in tiki culture

Tiki itself has seen a revival over the past twenty years, thanks to ambitious mixologists and entrepreneurs with an affinity for cocktails and old-world culture. For many thirsty fun-seekers, they have a mouse to thank for their introduction to the tiki mug.

“Like so many others, my first introduction to the world of tiki was seeing Walt Disney’s enchanted tiki room at a young age,” said Brandon Kleyla. Trader Brandon, says Yahoo Life. Now working on Universal Orlando Resort’s Epic Universe theme park, he spent eight years with Walt Disney Imagineering. His biggest projects? As a decorator and writer for their tiki bars, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at Disneyland Resort and Trader Sam’s Grog Cave at Walt Disney World Resort.

A tiki mug designed by Trader Brandon.  (Photo: Trader Brandon)

A tiki mug designed by Trader Brandon. (Photo: Trader Brandon)

“Honestly, I think tiki had its resurgence thanks to Trader Sam’s,” he shares. “Hundreds of people have told me that it was Trader Sam’s that brought them to the tiki. Sure, a lot of tiki bars were opening up all over the country, but when Disney invested in the tiki, in my opinion, that guaranteed that it wasn’t going anywhere.”

Both Trader Sam locations lean into the storytelling aspect that Disney parks are known for – even down to the mugs. Bars sell open lines of drink-specific mugs, as well as limited-edition collections commemorating holidays and special events. Demand is so great that new releases often attract hundreds of guests hoping to get their hands on these limited pieces.

“With Trader Sam’s, we tried to make [the mugs] part of the story more,” shares Trader Brandon. “For example, the Nautilus bowl at Grog Grotto is made to look like it’s carved out of wood, as if it were carved by the islanders…even though they don’t bind themselves in the history of the bar, they are a crucial element that people expect when visiting.”

Trader Brandon, who recently designed the sorrow drowner in Wilmington, North Carolina, had a front row seat to creating Trader Sam’s early mug collections. “It’s fascinating to think of all the pieces that go into a proper design,” he says. “The story, the size of the drinks, even the storage space – all of these must be considered when designing.”

Yahoo contributor Carly Caramanna shares some of her personal collection of tiki mugs.  (Photo: Carly Caramanna)

Yahoo contributor Carly Caramanna shares some of her personal collection of tiki mugs. (Photo: Carly Caramanna)

In his personal collection, he has 200 mugs in his kitchen alone, and has even designed several. “I think the simplest explanation is that it symbolizes your trip to that place,” he says of the popularity of tiki mugs. “People collect them because they’re part of the journey, a crucial part of the memory you make there.”

Tips for new tiki mug collectors

Want to create your own collection of tiki mugs? If there are any tiki swapping or meetups near you, Shag recommends starting there. There may be brand new mug makers out there making really cool mugs that aren’t terribly expensive. He also warns: Beware of second-hand stores, as they often offer counterfeits that are not originals.

“My rule is that I only get a mug if it’s a tiki bar I’m actually visiting,” says Trader Brandon. “Other, [my collecting would] be even worse, but this limit allows me to keep the account under control, but also makes them special.”

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