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Tongan Magic! Wood Transformed

KAANAPALI - Tap-tap-tap-tap... the familiar sound of the Polynesian wood carver invariably attracts a crowd here, as an expert wields one of 20 special chisels and a keawe wood mallet to fashion turtles, whales tales and tiki warriors that will find a new home on the Mainland.

Known as Laki (it is easier for visitors to remember), the powerfully built man who wears size XXXX-L T-shirts and has scars on his right ankle from slips of the chisel is one of a half-dozen or more artisans who tap away at resorts and choice locations alongside Whalers Village, The Wharf Cinema Center, Pioneer Inn and Fleetwood's on Front Street. The art form may be related to the creation of mysterious Easter Island statues made 25,000 years ago.

For years, images of tiki gods (Kane, Ku, Lono and Kanaloa were the principal Hawaiian ones) have been crafted as idols. Tiki sculpture flourished throughout Polynesia for centuries.

A tiki craze hit the Mainland after World War II, when veterans were enticed into places like Kon Tiki Ports in Chicago, with decors that reminded them of their fighting days in the South Pacific. Hawaiians had long fashioned tiki idols to worship.

Tupoa said he does NOT craft idols, because "I am a Christian," a Mormon in fact. My work, he said, is "representative." Biggest sellers are turtles (from the tiny to the large) that go for $30 and up. The ultimate carving is a four-foot tiki warrior that takes a month-and-a-half to carve and carries a price tag of $3,500.

Most of the Tupoa's customers are Mainlanders. Many return again and again to buy more, because they like his craftsmanship. One couple from Pittsburgh has six and buys another every year.

Tikis patterned after the gods feature piercing large eyes and mouths with a variety of expressions symbolizing protection, prosperity or other desires.

Tupoa took up carving 17 years ago when he was in eighth grade. "I liked to draw, but I wanted to do three dimensional," he explained. The learning began by observing his father and several cousins who were also proficient in the craft.

"The first time you have to sit there and observe. It takes awhile to learn," he explained.

Today a master craftsman, Tupoa acquires tree trunks or large limbs, often getting them from tree trimmers or county work crews who would just as soon have him cut them up and cart them off rather than doing it themselves.

To begin with carving woods like monkeypod, coconut or milo, he strips the bark and cuts the wood to length while considering the grain.

The wood, often fairly soft, is sanded before carving and sanded at the end. After many tap, tap, taps - sometimes as many as a dozen before pausing - two coats of polyethylene are applied to give the product a beautiful sheen.

Each figure is different. Mass-produced ones often made in China all look alike.

Oahu-born, the son of parents from Tonga who made their living working in hotels here, Tupoa has lived half his life in Lahaina and likes to call himself a Polynesian. (Many carvers have the same Tongan heritage.)

Tupoa carves at home and often works at it 12 hours a day. Three times a week, he goes to the resort. Although he claims to have once been shy, he engages in friendly conversation with visitors who come up as he taps away. "You have to learn to carve and talk at the same time," he noted.

A lady from British Columbia, among the many currently visiting from there, strolls up and picks up a six-inch long wooden turtle with a nice grain.

She thinks she will take it as-is, but then decides the underside should be inscribed with the words "Maui 2017" and the name of the family she will give it to next Christmas. The carver links the family name with the word "ohana," carving in cursive as fast as most people write with a pen.

The visitor wants more. "How about carving the eight Hawaiian Islands on top?" Tupoa takes out a pencil and draws all eight freehand, rendering Maui with a classic bump that represents the West Side.

Is it a good living? "To be honest with you, not really," the carver concludes. Sometimes it's good, sometimes bad," but all in a long day's work.

Columnist's Notebook: Totally Hawaiian, the beautiful Hawaiiana store next to ABC in Whalers Village, now carries "Maui for Millions: Tales of Remarkable People of Aloha," the columnist's second book.

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