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.