If you’ve never heard the name Bosko Hrnjak, you’re not alone. But in the world of tiki, the Escondido artist is a legend.
Hrnjak, 55, is widely credited with leading the revival in tiki bars and tiki culture that took off in the 1990s and is still going strong. His place in tiki history will be celebrated Saturday at the Hollywood premiere of the new film “Bosko and the Rebirth of Tiki.”
Film producer Robert S. Wilson said he hopes his 30-minute documentary will give Hrnjak the national recognition he deserves.
“Bosko is really a pioneer in the world of tiki and a true artist in every sense of the word,” Wilson said. “A lot of people are now following in his footsteps.”
Hrnjak — who lives and works on a lavishly landscaped three-acre ranch near the city’s northeast border — is best known for his ceramic tiki mugs and his carved wood tiki poles.
He has also been the consulting artist and designer on more than 50 tiki bars around the country, including one of his new favorites, False Idol in Little Italy.
Hrnjak’s work has been featured in several books and he’s been the subject of a podcast and a few short films. But having his story told by Hollywood filmmakers leaves him close to speechless.
“I can’t believe it,” he said in an interview at his home on Friday. “I’m just really honored.”
Tiki culture began in 1933 with the opening of the Don the Beachcomber Polynesian restaurant/bar in Hollywood and it boomed after World War II when American serviceman returned from the South Pacific.
Tiki idols, masks, torches, cocktails, decor and clothing were all the rage in the 1950s. But the ’60s counter-culture generation rejected their parents’ lifestyle and with it went the fortunes of tiki style, which was all but dead by the mid-1970s.
But before the bars and hotels festooned with tiki decor were torn down, Hrnjak had discovered them. Born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley to parents who were Serbian immigrants, he said he remembers seeing tiki masks and art on buildings in his neighborhood but he didn’t understand their cultural significance.
As early as grade school, Hrnjak had shown a talent for painting and three-dimensional art that landed him in the pages of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune several times.
After his family moved to Escondido, his best subject in high school was art and with his high school buddy and fellow artist Mark Ryden he took all the art classes offered at Palomar College.
They both went on to study at the Art Center School Of Design in Pasadena, where Hrnjak said he discovered tiki history and the California artists who lent their own style to tiki design.
In the 1990s, tiki culture started coming back in style. Fans began collecting old tiki art salvaged from shuttered bars and hotels. Bartenders started making tiki cocktails again and visual artists started painting tiki art.
But only Hrnjak was doing three-dimensional tiki art — carved poles and statuary and unique hand-cast and -painted ceramic tiki cocktail mugs — so his modern and whimsical style became the signature of the tiki revival.
In 2001, he was commissioned to design and decorate the first new tiki bar in America, Taboo Cove at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. He’s been in high demand for bar design ever since. He said no tiki bar is authentic unless it has three essential ingredients: tiki music, tiki drinks and tiki decor filling every visible surface.
Hrnjak credits much of his success to his Dutch-born wife Truus de Groot, an artist and composer with more than 40 albums to her credit, including five tiki-inspired discs. She helps him manage his website (tikibosko.com), commissions and finances.
Their home is part desert and sculpture garden, part studio space for his art and her music and part repository for their vast collections of mid-century modern artwork and housewares.
Inside the house — it was an 1880s-era caretaker’s house for a long-defunct lemon tree ranch — there are rooms, walls and shelves devoted to their collections of Witco wall art, plexiglass lamps, record albums, vintage bar glasses, ashtrays, swizzle sticks, pickle forks, sugar cubes, matchbooks, posters, roadside signs and much more.
Outside, there are dozens of carved tiki poles, 15-foot Easter Island-style stonelike gods, a carving workshop and a full-size tiki bar entirely decorated with authentic ‘50s-era decor.
Wilson, whose producing credits include “Snowden,” “Alexander” and the upcoming “Stuntman,” was first exposed to Hrnjak through his cocktail mugs. Then he visited Hrnjak’s ranch a few times to buy tiki objects.
Wilson said he has come to appreciate Hrnjak’s unique style and how his artistic training influences his work. For example, some of Hrnjak’s more than 120 mug designs show influences of Picasso.
To make the film, Wilson brought in director/editor Kurt Mattila, who he’d collaborated with on several projects including “Stuntman.” Mattila brought a camera crew to the Hrnjak ranch in January and by the time they finished filming a few days later, Mattila went from tiki novice to passionate fan.
“I hope people will get an understanding of who Bosko is and why this was an art form that had pretty much died and he figured out how to bring it back and keep it alive. It’s a huge thing,” he said.
Mattila said the film will have the same qualities of tiki culture, a mix of fun and mystery, as it explains the fall of tiki and its surprise revival in the unlikely hands of Hrnjak.
“Bosko’s not what you’d expect,” Mattila said. “He’s this really charming Hanna-Barbera type of character … not this lonely artist brooding guy. He’s really warm and inviting and he became my spirit guide.”
The movie will feature interviews with some of the tiki world’s top names, including author and historian Sven Kirsten and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, whose cocktail books and barware helped revive the popularity of tiki drinks.
It will also include an interview with Carlsbad resident Rolly Crump, 88, an original Disney Imagineer who, among many other projects, carved the tiki gods at Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
Crump himself was the subject of a 2016 documentary by Vista filmmaker Ken Kebow titled “The Whimsical Imagineer.” That will be screened with “Bosko” on a “Tiki Night” double-bill at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. A tiki products market and entertainment will precede the show beginning at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (323) 466-3456 or visit americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/tiki-night-2018-bosko-and-rolly.