Embracing Tiki Culture with Lowbrow Art
Artist and owner of Kailua Kona-based Tiki Shark Art, Brad Parker, flipped through dozens of pages of a black sketchbook he kept in his bag. Each page was filled with monochromatic sketches of tiki art for upcoming projects, both for the Tiki Shark product lines and bigger canvas pieces so detailed that it could take months for him to paint.
“The first thing I do is take out my sketchbook and do rough sketching of paintings,” Parker said pointing at the different lowbrow style tiki drawings.
Tiki Shark Art, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, has a following in more than 32 countries for its Hawaiian-themed art and products that range from apparel, beach towels, tiki mugs and key chains to $25,000 original paintings, all designed by Parker. The company plans to add to the product line with the addition of Tiki Shark Art sunglasses in the near future.
Parker and his business partner, Abbas Hassan, were featured as the No. 10 fastest growing small business in PBN’s annual Fastest 50 in 2014.
“It was very tough for us to get into the souvenir market in Hawaii,” Hassan said. “But people now recognize Tiki Shark and Brad for his style of art.”
Tiki mugs and beach towels have been their best-selling products across the board. Multiple, diverse revenue streams has been the key to their success thus far, Hassan said.
“We are a very quirky company, and we have our niche,” Hassan said. “But people get a kick out of us because our brand is so over the board.”
It is that uniqueness of Hawaiian- themed products that helped Tiki Shark Art stand out in its first 10 years of operation, both in the souvenir and fine art industries.
“Our company is so flexible and has a broad ability to do just about anything,” Parker said. We did a lot of things people said we couldn’t do. People used to say you can’t be a fine artist and sell your art on a keychain, you then destroy your fine art ability. We proved that wrong, you can do both.”
How did you come up with this concept to sell tiki- inspired art?
Hassan: I was struggling to find an artist for our products. I wanted somebody with a particular art style, one that you can’t just go to the store and buy. I wanted to create a brand.
Parker: I started to paint this lowbrow art style, which was big on the West Coast. There was this whole retro tiki movement going on, which died out when Hawaii got statehood... Nobody had really seen lowbrow art, they didn’t have conceptual cartoons and the realism of that stuff here.
Parker: It all starts in the sketchbook. The paintings then go to canvas. The acrylic paint comes out and I spend hours doing that. Edgy stuff I have to reproduce into the computer and I use Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop... That kind of art is not about cranking it out to make a buck as it is saying something, saying it right and communicating it to other people. There’s a lot of things that people haven’t communicated about Hawaii. People paint a lot of happy dolphins, beautiful flowers, seascapes and rainbows, which is lovely, but nobody talks a lot about mythology or history, or some of the other crazy fantastic things that have happened here on the Islands.
What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve faced in your 10 years of business?
Hassan: Finances to fund the growth. We are not the traditional company that banks would loan money to because our balance sheet is not as strong. We’ve come up with alternative financing.
Parker: Every time you think it will be this step and this step until we get there, it becomes this step, this step, this step, three more steps, and then you’ll be there. There is so much more to learn on your way to where you thought you were going to go. Everything is a process.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in the business?
Hassan: I have an MBA in marketing and management. Forget about it, anything you learned in college, because it isn’t going to work in the real business world... it’s surprising how different the real world is from the academic world. That would be my advice anyone who is starting up, you have to go through the school of hard knocks to get to where you want to go.
Parker: All these kids go to art school to be artists... Statistics show that only two percent go on to become artists. A small percentage of that go on to make a living selling their art on the walls of a gallery. It’s so slim... Passion is so important in that kind of field, that will take you farther than anything else.
Hassan: I envisioned Tiki Shark to be a major souvenir and apparel player, that would knock every one off the board with his [Brad’s] designs. Considering the margins, I think we want to switch gears and get into the fine art area but we are very happy with where we are.