The Shaka: A History.

The Shaka: A History.

By Nathan Lockwood.

The shaka is now a mainstay in surf culture and is a universal affirmation of stoke, good vibes and mutual recognition.


Like many parts of surf culture, these roots can be traced back to the Hawaiian Islands, specifically the Kahuku Sugar Mill on the island of Oahu.

The tale beings in the early 1900s when a humble mill worker named Hamana Kalili would inadvertently create what would become a globally ubiquitous symbol. Kalili’s job as a presser was to feed the sugar cane through large rollers in order to extract the juice. One fateful day, Kalili’s right hand got caught in the machinery which resulted in losing his middle, index and ring fingers.


Unable to work the rollers after the incident the owners of the mill gave him a job overseeing security for the transport train that ran from Sunset Beach and Kaaawa. Part of his job was to prevent local keiki (children) from boarding the train as it slowly approached and departed Kahuku Station. Upon spotting said keiki attempting to jump on the train Kalili would shout and wave his hand (showing only a thumb and little finger, hence the shaka) to try and dissuade them. After a time, the keiki would use this hand gesture as a signal that Kalili was either not there or not looking thus giving them the green light to jump on the train.


Another theory denotes the origin of the shaka to Spanish immigrants, who folded their middle fingers and took their thumbs to their lips as a gesture of friendship to represent sharing a drink with the Hawaiian natives.

Whilst Kalili is largely credited as the first user of the shaka it is not a word in Hawaiian nor was it an intrinsic part of ancient Hawaiian culture.

The explosive popularity of the shaka Hawaii can be credited in part to used car TV commercials by salesman David ‘Lippy’ Espinada in the 1960’s who would use the gesture and shout “Shaka, brah!” as part of his pitch.

A decade later the shaka entered Hawaiian politics with Frank Fasi using it in his third campaign for mayor of Honolulu. Fasi won a decisive victory and the shaka was used to great effect in three more races.


It is not known at what point exactly the shaka permeated into wider surf culture and brought about the universality we see today, but travelling Californians to Hawaii appear to have brought the gesture back to the US mainland as early as the 1960’s. The rest as they say is history.


In my mind at least it almost is immaterial how it spread through the world and surf society as it has provided a global affirmation of stoke, love and aloha that transcends borders, boundaries and languages. From Brazil to Bali, from Coolangatta to Canada and back again and beyond,
flashing a few of these in a potentially unfriendly and unfamiliar line-up is a tried and tested way to ease tensions and get a few waves.


Former US President and proud son of Oahu, Barack Obama (who is also partial to bodysurfing at Sandy’s when back in the islands and is currently constructing a home on Oahu’s east side) can be said, to have taken the shaka to the highest political office in the world bringing its journey full circle from humble Hawaiian beginnings all the way to the White House (much like Obama’s own journey). Remember to hang loose always.

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