The tiki revival has given us many things: secret societies, rediscovered ingredients, banana dolphins. But perhaps one of the most interesting developments from this tight-knit subculture? No shortage of fascinating career niches.
Eight years ago, illustrator and sculptor Raissa Meillon (otherwise known as Baï) had a chance encounter with tiki mug artist Squid on a trip to the U.S. Fast-forward to 2016, and she’s spending her days running Baï Tiki, crafting colorful, whimsical tiki mugs in her Parisian kitchen, and supplying those wares to tiki bars around the world. We first found out about Baï Tiki via Scott Schuder of Dirty Dick’s, a Paris tiki bar that counts itself among Baï’s clients, and couldn’t resist learning a little more about this one-woman operation. We caught up with Baï to find out what convinced her to make the career leap from working at a newspaper to baking Polynesian-inspired ceramics in her own oven:
Tell us a little about Baï Tiki. When did it begin?
I started in 2008 after a trip to the US where I was lucky enough to meet one of the greatest tiki mug artists, Squid. Thanks to him I was lucky to be introduced to quite a lot of people from the tiki world, some of whom were already famous. Since I was arriving in this scene completely out of the blue I had no idea who they were. I would say “hi” to them like I would say “hi” to my neighbour, but they were kind of big shots!
How and why did you start making tiki mugs?
Before my trip to the US I had already started collecting mugs. I bought them at Born Bad, the only shop in Paris where you could find them at the time. When I came back to France, I quit my job at Libération, the French national daily newspaper, and I invested in an oven. All of this was done on a whim. I used to be in an advertising environment, with a marketing team and all that stuff… but I have such an aversion toward this world that I wanted to go back to the “material.” I wanted to touch things again, to draw.
I did my very first mug while in the U.S., a palm tree that people liked a lot, to my surprise… since it was my first I wasn’t expecting people to be interested in it. Squid encouraged me to keep on doing it. So I bought my oven when I came back and I did four mugs to the request of a client. That’s how it all started. Right after that people started following me on Tiki Central.
One of the many handcrafted ceramic mugs created in Raissa Meillon’s kitchen. Photos courtesy of Baï Tiki.
What is your artistic background?
I studied art in Paris for four years. I did illustration for thirteen years (for Fisher Price, Playskool, that kind of stuff). It worked really well for a while, and then I moved to Libération (4 years freelance and 3 years permanent contract). And I got into sculpture thanks to my love of flea markets where I would collect ashtrays or vases from Vallauris, for instance. (Vallauris is the southern France city where Picasso, Matisse, and others lived.)
What made you fall in love with tiki?
One day I was watching “Finding Nemo” with my children. And there’s this moment in the movie where you can see Tiki figures in the fish tank. This scene really appealed to me with all this imagery of magic, volcanoes, sorcerers… the darkness, the red shades, the sea weeds… I was wondering what it was that I liked so much in there? I’d already seen things like this before, but this time I was more drawn to it than usual. And it’s only a bit later that I realised that I liked it so much because there were Tikis in this fish tank! At first I didn’t know what it was called. I thought it was called “totems” or something like that. And one day I came across a Tahitian Tiki! All of a sudden a whole world opened right in front of me! I thought that was the place where I belonged since the very beginning. I had found my place at last.
Is it difficult to run your business out of your own kitchen?
Yes, pretty difficult. People may not realise, but I don’t have a workshop, I don’t have an assistant. My kitchen is rather rock’n’roll. I do the prototype, then I do the molds, and from the molds I do my mugs. I learned everything myself. No one told me how to cook a mug, at which temperature or things like that. I really had to dig for information.
You have to know that in the ceramics world in France people will not give you any tips, they would just tell you “oh well, you just have to try and see…”. So in the end you would lose a lot of money on something that got screwed up, just because no one told you that it should have been one more degree. So yes, it’s hard, especially as I’m not a salesperson. I’m an artist. I’m quite unable to sell myself.
I’m really lucky to have people following me, understanding what I do, and regularly buying my new stuff. That’s what keeps me going on. Sometimes people say mugs are expensive, but it’s not made in China. It’s made in my Parisian kitchen on my own. It’s a lot of time and money invested before I can release one mug. Even the raw material that I use is really expensive in Paris. I’m not living in Vallauris or Limoges.
Any personal favorite mugs that you can show us?
Here is the video for the (Georgi Radev/ re’al) mug I’ve designed:
Peanut Bob is linked to the Tiki Bob. All artists do their own take on Tiki Bob, so I went for Peanut Bob:
Then you have the Hawaiian gods: Lono, Kū, and Kāne the latest I did. The next one will be Kanaloa.
I also do some “one of a kind” mugs.
One of Baï Tiki’s handmade tiki mugs.
And apart from that it depends on my inspiration. I’m lucky to have Musée du Quai Branly not too far (museum of indigenous art and cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas). I’m often going there to collect information and get some inspiration.
What do you love about tiki, specifically?
I discovered a scene that was really like me, but I hadn’t words or images to put on it before. And when I was introduced to the Tiki world I knew it was it. These sorts of “monsters,” the cartoonish or Disney aspect, the exaggerated and caricatured take on things… and ceramics. I already loved ceramics before, but the two things combined together in an item you can drink cocktails in, I think it’s just fabulous! It’s art you can take along with you outside. It’s not on a wall or something. You can drink from it, and then you compare them with your friends… I think it’s really cool. And that’s also a way to know who’s the person standing next to you. Thanks to his or her mug. Like “oh well, that kind of mug… nah, must be boring”, or “oh, hold on, he’s got that one?! This guy is amazing!”, if you see what I mean.
And on the “art you can carry” topic, I think it’s a really interesting concept. I’m really open to any barman who wants to create his/her own mug. It’s something I’d like to do more. Working with bars is cool. But I’d like to develop more relationships with people working in cocktail bars individually. For instance, I recently had a request from a girl who’s going to a cocktail contest in Miami. She asked me to do four specific mugs just for her. I really love doing this! I’d like to do this more.
What is your favorite tiki drink? (Or drink, in general?)
The Ancient Mariner. I think it’s the one with pepper, right? I’ve been asked before, but since I’m quite bad with recipes I never know what to answer. I know there are spices/pepper in it. Then there’s the notorious Mai Tai, but with so many cocktail bars nowadays there are so many good variations.
Which bars do you supply with your mugs?
Before Dirty Dick’s, I started by supplying Le Tiki Lounge in Paris (that I still supply as I can today). Also Le Point Rouge in Bordeaux. And that’s about it in France. Then I’ve got designs used by Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. And I also worked for two years in a London company where most of the designs they still use today were made by me, but nobody knows it. I’ve also done some mugs for the Mahiki, Plantation (Maison Ferrand), Flor de Cana, Yaguara and Re’al.
What makes your mugs special?
If I had to compare, and I think that could be applied to some other European artists… Europeans claimed a bit of this Tiki spirit but with a different vision that the American one. In the U.S., people have a specific idea of it. They grew up with it. Their parents went to Tiki bars. So they’ve got designs that might remind them of their childhood. But here, it’s brand new for us. We’re seeing the thing from afar thinking it’s really pretty, so we’ve transformed the original idea a bit. My advantage I think is that I only keep the details I’m interested in and blend them together, even if for the American people it might seem totally crazy! So yes, I’ve got a more European vision. It’s a total fantasy. For me, it’s a fantasy about Americans who fantasize about Hawaii.
And another thing that makes my mugs special is that I was the first in France to do such a thing.