What do you do when you find a peace sign on the back of an old tiki carving?
Most of us might assume that some kid from the 70s likely carved it there as grafitti, but most of us are not urban archeologists like Corey and his friends. Corey, Brad, and Paul immediately considered the peace sign to be a pointer to something more substantial. And, once they found the clue, there was an archaeological mystery to solve. If it were a Hardy Boys novel, I’d likely call it The Mystery of the Tiki and the Peace Sign.
Corey has been collecting ephemera for more than twenty years. His acquisitions include menus, newspaper articles, napkins, matchbooks, and other memorabilia that focus mostly on the lost tiki establishments of Missouri and Kansas but also include significant items from all over the Midwest. Corey and his archeologist companions’ knowledge and collection of historical artifacts now constitute more than 270 pages of a manuscript, which hopefully will be published soon.
How did Corey become an urban archeologist? In college, Corey picked up a compact disc of re-released Les Baxter tunes. He was drawn to Mark Ryan’s now famous painting on the front. He remembered his parents collection of exotica LPs from his childhood and was compelled to listen and to study the images. That’s when the collecting began. First, it was antique stores for ashtrays and matchbooks from pre-tiki, tropical bars. Then, there was eBay and Craigslist for carvings, tikis, and other substantial artifacts. Soon, he met Silverline (Brad) and 8FT Tiki (Paul) on Tiki Central, and the trio developed a bond for researching regional tiki history. Brad and Paul had already laid the groundwork for much of the history of Kansas and Missouri, and Cory’s friendship with the two further ignited the passion for learning. Next, MOKANtiki was created on Facebook, and Corey became a key historian among the group. MOKANTiki is still going strong and serves as an effective connector for MidWest tiki folks.
I was fortunate to visit the Flora Lounge, Corey and Lisa’s home bar in Kansas City. With more than twenty years of collecting, you can imagine the rich history and the sheer number of items present. Each wall has framed collections of ephemera from famous tiki palaces, flanked by beautiful antique tikis, along with a central bar that anchors the lounge. It’s a space large enough to entertain a small crowd. And the collecting never stops. Soon after my visit, Corey was fortunate to find a significant group of old Papua New Guinea masks, complete with original tags for each item, which had been sequestered for 50 years. I’m sure these works of art will soon find their way into the mix of history in the Flora Lounge as well.
So what happened in the mystery of the tiki and the peace sign?
Turns out that the peace sign was a symbol associated with Cyril “Sonny” Directo, a native Hawaiian that had studied via the GI Bill, then became a long-time art instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute. At one point in Directo’s career at the Institute, he asked his students to carve something that was representative of their cultural heritage. When Directo realized he had never done the same, he began carving tikis in the style of his Hawaiian ancestors. He used the peace sign as his artist signature. Later, Directo returned to his home to study and teach carving at the University of Hawaii, during which time he did carvings for the Primo Village.
It’s likely that the carving that Corey found on Craigslist was one of the carvings from Directo’s time at the Kansas Art Institute. Sadly, the carving had been used as a costume shop rental for outdoor parties, had been sitting outside for years, and was beginning to decay. Little did he know, but Corey had rescued a piece of Kansas City’s tiki history. The mystery was solved. The tiki was saved. To Corey, Brad, and Paul’s knowledge this carving is only one of five of Directo’s tikis that have survived. Corey is fortunate to own two of Directo’s works, and they now have a place of honor in the Flora Lounge amid a rich oasis of tiki history.