Minimalist Tiki

My brush with greatness: Remembering Wayne Coombs, 1949-2012

Like the imposing Tikis that he carved for more than 40 years, Cocoa Beach’s Wayne Coombs was a larger-than-life figure with a mischievous bent and a style all his own. Coombs, whose distinctive “Florida style” of carving became his trademark and made him one of the modern Tiki revival’s most well-known and beloved figures, passed away on Sept. 4 at age 62.

A postcard promoting Wayne Coombs, the artist

Wayne is believed to have suffered a heart attack at his studio. He is survived by his wife of 35 years, Beki. A celebration will be held in his honor on Sunday, Sept. 23, from 1 to 5 p.m. at his Mai Tiki Gallery in Cocoa Beach.

Originally from Miami, Wayne moved with his family to the Space Coast at age 14. He was a rambunctious artist and free spirit from an early age. His first gallery, Free and Creative, opened in the mid-’60s and he began carving Tikis in 1967. He and Beki founded Mai Tiki Studio and Gallery in 1973.

Over the years, Wayne became a fixture not only in Brevard County and throughout Florida, where his Tikis are ubiquitous, but also in the worldwide surfing and Tiki scenes. The studio and gallery became a local attraction, and his fame grew large enough to match his imposing figure and robust personalty.

His many projects included an exhibition of art made from salvaged Cuban rafts that washed ashore. Besides Tikis, Wayne also specialized in masks and put an emphasis on paintings and other fine art in his later years. He was a talented fine artist who also wanted to be known for more than just Tikis.

Modern Caribbean Rum
Tikis at Mai Tiki Studio await a home.
Tikis at Mai Tiki Studio await a home.

But it’s clear that his primitive and tribal Tikis will be his legacy. They line the walkways at International Palms Resort on Cocoa Beach and can be found in bars, restaurants and theme parks around the world. They’re spread throughout public places in Brevard County and fittingly serve as guardians of the beach at the end of Minutemen Causeway, not far from Wayne’s studio.

There are hopes that Wayne’s longtime crew will keep the Mai Tiki style alive for years to come. But it will be sad not shaking the big guy’s hand and having that one-of-a-kind interaction with a legend.

Almost everyone in the Tiki community who owns one of Wayne’s Tikis has a story about meeting the artist at an event or his cozy Space Coast studio. Mine is no different than the thousands that came before me, but no less memorable.

Living in Florida since the ’70s, I’d seen his Tikis everywhere, of course, but I didn’t relate them to a specific creator until I got into the Polynesian Pop scene over the past decade. I first met Wayne and Beki at SunFest in West Palm Beach, where his giant Mai Tiki booth was a fixture at the south end of the fine art marketplace. It stuck out like a sore thumb, but in a good way. Wayne and Beki were gregarious and inviting to all who passed by. He told me he did good business at SunFest, one of the state’s largest music and art festivals.

A Wayne Coombs painting in his gallery.
A Wayne Coombs painting in his gallery.

I’d just begun working with The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender in Fort Lauderdale, and started cajoling Wayne into making a return appearance. He was a hit at the festival in its early years, but sadly he was never able to make it back to meet his most devoted fans en masse. During a sneak preview of the upcoming Plastic Paradise documentary (see video clip below), Wayne’s appearance got the biggest cheer. Organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White says Hukilau 2013 will be dedicated to Wayne’s memory.

I held off on buying one of Wayne’s Tikis until I had the proper place to display it. With marriage and a new venue for my home bar in the works, my fiancée and I made plans in late 2009 to visit the hallowed ground of 251 Minuteman Causeway in Cocoa Beach. I called Beki and set up a meeting, intending to pick out a Tiki when I got there. I would know it when I saw it.
* See more photos from the December 2009 trip

In his studio, dubbed the Fortress of Solitude, Wayne was truly in his element. I’ll never forget that huge handshake, booming voice and welcoming demeanor. We spent a lot of time looking at his new passion, the many paintings that lined the walls. I browsed the Tikis in the work area as Wayne explained his different styles – the grimacing Warrior, stoic Guard, grinning Joker, and tongue-wagging Scream. A lone Warrior peered at me from the corner, and the deal was done.

Wayne Coombs gives Hurricane Hayward and a Warrior Tiki a parting gesture in December 2009. (Photo by Susan Hayward)
Wayne Coombs gives Hurricane Hayward and a Warrior Tiki a parting gesture in December 2009. (Photo by Susan Hayward)

We lingered and talked to Wayne and Beki for a bit, discussing the state of Tiki and their plans for future festival appearances. He talked about his paintings and gave us a cool keepsake, one of Crazy Al’s “Classic Mainland” chess pieces (third from right in photo) designed in the Mai-Tiki style. The Mai Tiki Warrior now holds court as the centerpiece of The Atomic Grog home bar and always will. You’ll see it looming in the background in many cocktail photos I’ve posted (see example).

I had one more order of business: A parting photo with the artist and my Warrior. We had to rush as rain was looming, and my fiancée (now wife) snapped the shot quickly as we said our farewells. Later, as we looked at the photos, we noticed a detail that was so characteristically Wayne: Two fingers inching up behind my head. Though he didn’t achieve the classic bunny ears, his rascally intentions were clear. I was punk’d by Wayne.

The photo was later edited for display in albums and on the bar in front of the Warrior. It also popped up recently in a story I posted about International Tiki Day in a section about supporting artists and carvers.

But with Wayne’s passing, I thought I’d post the original, unedited photo (see above) in remembrance of the fun-loving and devilish artist who always found a way to stick out. He will be missed.

Remembering Wayne Coombs from Common Machine Productions

Official sites | Mai Tiki Studio and Gallery | Facebook page | Fans group

Related links
Brevard, fans mourn Mai Tiki owner, legend Wayne Coombs
Photos: The life of Wayne Coombs | Wayne Coombs, Mai Tiki Gallery owner, dies
Arts community loses yet another beloved member


Wayne Coombs and Mai Tiki Gallery
Photos by Hurricane Hayward unless noted
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

4 Replies to “My brush with greatness: Remembering Wayne Coombs, 1949-2012”

  1. This is a very beautiful article and I thank you for posting it. Wayne is my uncle and his passing has been hard all around for family and friends alike. I received news late that he passed due to miss-communications so its been hard accepting that he is *really* gone. This article (especially the video, He would pull that thumb cut off thing on me as a child. The first time I believed him!) managed to put a smile on my face and I was able to remember the happy times with him instead of the recent sad ones.

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