The Origin of the Shaka

Chris Hunkeler/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Shaka sign is a hand greeting that seemingly originated in or is at least most specific to Hawaii. But visitors (mostly surfers) have taken the Shaka far from the flowery isles and off to their respective locales where the familiar hand gesture makes its way into pictures of family gatherings and even newspaper photos and is very common as an off the cuff gesture of good will found in surf magazine spreads or pictorials of island style alumni events.

Usage of Shaka

In Hawaii, you might flash a Shaka when someone lets you into a line of traffic or offers you a free refill of coffee in a café or when you are posing for a picture with some of your good friends. It can signify “hello” or “goodbye.” You can use it to say “Thanks” or “That’s cool” and “I completely agree.” But for the most part, the Shaka is a sign of Aloha, love and appreciation. For those growing up in Hawaii, it is just a something that has always been, like a peace sign or a thumbs up. But it seems the phrase “hang loose” has been most recently attributed to the gesture. Actual sign language uses the Shaka configuration to signify surfing itself, which shows the connection between the Shaka and the wave riding culture.

How do you make a Shaka sign? Begin by holding your hand in a loose fist and then extending your pinkie and thumb in separate directions. Hawaiian locals will tell you that it is essential to keep the back of the hand facing the recipient of the greeting. I like a subtle oscillating or shaking of the Shaka to punctuate the positive gesture.

Origins of Shaka

Some attribute the sign to a man on the east side of Oahu who lost his middle three fingers in a sugar mill accident or a more general industrial mishap. Regardless of the story details, this mythical figure seems to be Hamana Kalili. One variation has Kalili becoming known for waving at passersby near the popular Polynesian Cultural Center. His unique hand shape resembled the now famous Shaka. June Wantanabe writes of still another variation in that instead says the man was put in charge guarding the sugar train to Sunset Beach and his all-clear gesture indicating train was free of underage train jumpers would become today’s Shaka.

It seems that all sources agree that the name “Shaka” came from a popular television advertisement. In the 1960’s car salesman Lippy Espinda utilized the gesture in his popular commercials, which spread among the locals as a gesture of good will with his catch phrase “Shaka Bradah!”

Much less plausible explanations include a surfer whose fingers were bitten off by a shark and the all too common use of the thumb and pinkie to symbolize drinking booze. But regardless of the usage and history of the Shaka, it is evident that surfers have adopted the sign as an integral part of their culture. Whether you are surfing In Brazil or Florida, a flash of the Shaka to a fellow surfer will be universally accepted and understood. In fact, some legends place the origin of the Shaka in the hands of California surfers who were visiting the Hawaiian Islands in the 50’s.

The sign of the Shaka graces billboards and political ads in Hawaii and has become the glue that unites traveling surfers around the country and around the world. Sitting in an airport in Ohio, two lost souls can quickly connect over a Shaka and a smile. Whether they are snowboarders or bodyboarders, surfers or skateboarders, the Shaka signifies an attitude and a feeling. It communicates a sensibility and a perspective. The Shaka says that we are of the same tribe.