Photos by J.B. Nicholas
Clockwise from below right, the hall of Barry Kushelowitz’s apartment, cluttered with authentic tiki masks highlighted with black-light paint; Kuselowitz, a.k.a. “Captain Kush; tiki figurines.
A tiki oasis glows brightly on E. 7th St.; Who knew?
By David McCabe
Barry Kushelowitz’s apartment door doesn’t show much indication of what’s inside. Save for a few tiki stickers on the olive green door, the entryway is identical to the five others on the second-floor landing. But open the door, and you enter a tropical paradise that is the result of Kushelowitz’s years of collecting tiki memorabilia.
Inside the 140-square-foot apartment, which features a small bathroom (also decked out in tropical style), the floors and walls are lined with straw mats and the ceiling is painted with pink, green, orange and blue stars. Much of the painted objects in the apartment, including the stars, are painted with black-light paint, which turns bright when lit with a black light. Kushelowitz has placed a number of the purple lights around the space, so when he turns off the “normal” lights, the apartment is lit by a few low-power tiki lamps and the neon colors of the painted objects.
The most striking objects in the room are the tiki statues themselves, which stare at visitors with a gaze that never wavers. In order to accentuate the tikis, Kushelowitz, with help from a neighbor, paints their details with the same black-light paint that lines the ceiling. While he can’t say exactly how many items he has in his collection, his apartment is full all the way to the door and he has a storage unit filled with tiki items. Kushelowitz said he believes he has “the most tiki per square inch in the world.”
Kushelowitz’s interest in tiki culture was started with a visit to a shop — he doesn’t remember which one — 12 to 15 years ago, when he heard a distinctive song playing over the sound system. As he approached the owner to inquire about the music, another patron cut in front of him and asked, “My God, what’s this song?” It was a track off of Martin Denny’s album “Exotica,” and Kushelowitz became infatuated with the music genre of the same name, which evokes faraway islands with sounds meant to replicate what it would be like to be at a “party in the Amazon rainforest,” Kushelowitz said.
Sometime after he was introduced to exotica, he was walking by the now-closed East Village store Love Saves the Day on Second Ave. when he noticed a set of tiki statues in the window. He paid $700 for the set and brought them home. They were original tiki statues made in the 1950s by the Witco company and designed by William Westenhaver, who designed many popular tiki items.
Kushelowitz painted one of the statues, but after some research, realized he had a collectible. So he colored the rest by putting black-light paint on white tape, and then pasting the tape in the statues’ grooves — so that he’s not painting directly on the wood. He said that he has yet to see other collections with the kind of Witco items he has.
Since then, Kushelowitz has grown his collection, with items from eBay, as well as his travels, such as a painting he picked up in Thailand and some beads he found in Vegas.
Some of the pieces have stories behind them. Once, Kushelowitz said he went out to the desert to buy a Witco waterfall piece, but the seller stiffed him.
“So I ended up buying this mannequin from this maniac in the dessert with three daughters,” he said.
The mannequin now sits next to his desk, glowing in the black light and dressed in a flower skirt. She even has a name: Monica.
He has also been to a number of famous tiki bars around the country, including the famous Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He said that while East Village bar Otto’s Shrunken Head is great, they don’t quite have the whole tiki experience, and need to improve the music they play.
Does he have any interest in opening up his own tiki-themed establishment? Yes, he says, but real estate in New York is too expensive and the city has become too “sterilized.” One idea he has is to use his collection to turn Ray’s Candy Store, on E. Seventh St. and Avenue A, into a tiki bar, with Ray Alvarez, the store’s owner, as emcee.
“Ray could come down at night and tell stories,” Kushelowitz said. “He’s got a million stories.”
He bemoans what he sees as a lack of creativity in New York, saying that although he has the requisite skills, he doesn’t DJ often.
“The music I would play is obviously too interesting for today’s audiences. I don’t play hip-hop, techno or rap,” Kushelowitz said, adding that he has 11,000 songs on his external hard drive — one of a few pieces of modern technology hidden among the tiki elements of the apartment.
He laments that back when he got out of college — he attended Cornell after a childhood in Forest Hills, Queens — one would escape the outer boroughs by going to Manhattan. Now, to find a decent Saturday night, you have to go to Brooklyn.
But despite the fact that the East Village, as he says, is “sterile,” “corporate” and “homogeneous,” Barry Kushelowitz will always have his 140-square-foot island paradise on E. Seventh St. to escape to.