Tiki Time! New Culture Cove Gallery in La Jolla celebrates Polynesian pop

Culture Cove Gallery celebrates all things tiki! Will Bowen
Culture Cove Gallery celebrates all things tiki! Will Bowen

By Will Bowen

“It’s a dream come true for me … opening my own little place … where I can sell my silk-screens and promote my love, which is Polynesian pop culture,” said Gene McDonald, an artist and surfer, who, along with his wife, Lisa, a first-grade teacher at Kate Sessions Elementary School, recently opened the Culture Cove Gallery & Tiki Room at 7514 La Jolla Blvd.

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Culture Cove Gallery celebrates all things tiki! Will Bowen

It’s a very fun and interesting place — and a bit kooky — where the aesthetic focus is on the art, culture and memorabilia of a 1950-‘60s retro Pop Polynesian beatnik surfer’s island paradise dream. It’s a little like the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, but without the talking parrots.

And it is the perfect place to find a clever and unique gift, as the store is packed with island paradise-themed paintings, photographs, silkscreen prints, lamps, magazines, mugs, music, books, clothing, and of course … tikis!

As McDonald explains it, “I grew up in Long Beach. When I was 15, I moved to San Diego with my grandparents who were employed by Signal Oil Company. I went to UC High on Genesee Avenue where I took silk-screening classes all through high school. And I took up surfing in La Jolla!

“After high school, I started my own business printing surfing stickers and the rice paper surfboard graphics that are glassed onto surfboards, such as those of the Dewy Webber and Rusty surfboard companies. Over the years, my emersion in surf culture has grown.

“Somewhere along the way, I discovered the Tiki Scene, which became my true love and fascination. I have been especially inspired by the artist Josh Agle, aka “Shag,” a Walt Disney artist, who is world renowned for his Pop Polynesian beatnik art.”

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Owner Gene McDonald shows off some of the gallery's island-style merchandise.

In 2005, McDonald helped start Tiki Magazine, a publication promoting Tiki culture throughout America.

When he is not out surfing at North Bird Rock or Hospitals, a surf break between the Children’s Pool and WindanSea in La Jolla, McDonald is hard at work silk-screening, printing, and making artistic lamps in the studio adjacent to his gallery store.

Besides redesigning the graphics for Rusty surfboards, McDonald designs and supplies the coffee mugs for Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, clothing for Trader Vic’s restaurant, and merchandize for the Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island.

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"Roadrunner' by Josh Agle, aka 'SHag' courtesy

He is also responsible for the graphics at the Moore’s Cancer Center Luau and Long Board competition held each year at Scripps Pier. He will be printing serigraphs for the WindanSea Surf Club’s 50th Anniversary, which is coming up this year, and he is making jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hot Curl surfer icon.

McDonald also helps market the annual Tiki Oasis, a weekend in August that begins at the Bali Hai restaurant then moves on to the Hanalei Hotel in Mission Valley. The event, which draws people from all over the country, will host more than 80 vendors, 10 bands, numerous lectures and presentations, and Polynesian-inspired burlesque dancers.

Longtime La Jollan and La Jolla High School graduate Pam Babcock (who said she used to do champion female surfer Margo Godfrey’s homework so that Godfrey could go surfing) dropped into the store the other day to look around. “I must have driven by a 100 times and finally decided to stop in and satisfy my curiosity. I think that this is a beautiful store. It gives you a really fun feeling!” Babcock said.

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