Island locals know that the meaning of the shaka has evolved, diversified, and proliferated far beyond hang-loose territory. But where did the gesture originally come from? Was it whalers signaling the sight of a whale fluke? Surfers tilting back beer cans? Car salesman David “Lippy” Espinda with his oft-televised “shaka, bra!” trademark in the 1970s? Or was it thanks to a man from Lā‘ie named Hamana Kalili, who lost an index, middle, and ring finger in an accident at the Kahuku Sugar Mill in the 1940s and spent his days kicking kids off the North Shore sugar train so regularly that they used the shaka to signal that the coast was clear? However it was born, the now-ubiquitous shaka can convey a rainbow of meanings with just a flick of the wrist. These are some of the more common types of shakas you may encounter on an average day in the islands.
The basic shaka: Found in abundance throughout the islands and the standard by which all others are compared, this shaka can mean “aloha,” “mahalo,” or “right on,” with unbounded potential for additional meanings. It is often rotated from side to side for added effect. Also known as “da reglah kine shaka.” No ack, K? Shoots.
The Maui shaka: Endemic to Maui, this inverted shaka follows the basic shaka’s construction, but with less rigidity. Thumb and pinkie effectively curve upwards in a smile-like fashion, signaling increased relaxation and carefree living.
The baby shaka: A widespread, playful shaka known to proliferate in social media images, especially selfies, this one is “liked” for its apparent increase in cuteness. It achieves the pleasing symmetry of the standard shaka, but at three-quarters the size. It’s a really cute shaka.
The double, or giant, shaka: The largest shaka achievable by any individual. At twice the size of the basic shaka, all connotations are exactly doubled, thus doubling the feelings in the recipient.
The Kaua‘i shaka: Nearly imperceptible to anyone not born and raised on the Garden Isle, this shaka is, for all intents and purposes, just a waving hand angled horizontally with fingers slightly spread. The only microscopic feature distinguishing it is the minute, skyward curvature of pinkie and thumb. This shaka also reportedly appears in ultra-rural or otherwise supremely chillax regions of the islands.
The business shaka: This shaka reflects the simultaneously casual and stuffy aloha attire sported by Hawai‘i’s business professionals. Its telltale sign is a bone-crunchingly tight grip sometimes accompanied by light knuckle sweat. Most commonly found in Honolulu’s business district, this shaka is an old standby in corporate photo ops and legislative signings.
The KHON 2 News shaka: This shaka may take any variation, so long as it is held up and rotated from side to side for an uncomfortably long time. Found flying solo or in groups, this shaka endures a snail-paced panning shot by KHON 2 cameramen night after night, accompanied by awkward smiles and gradually wandering eyes, and overlaid with an unending ‘ukulele outro played by island favorites Keola and Kapono Beamer.
The brand shaka: Although people have drawn shakas of all kinds for a very long time, this dumbed-down illustrated version seems to have been derived from the old Hang Loose surfing company logo. Occasionally sans one finger, this shaka is exploited for a variety of marketing purposes—from Mickey Mouse cartoons to local clothing companies.
The Obama shaka: Any variation of the shaka performed by the 44th president of the United States of America, or his kin.
The tourist shaka: The shaka that says, “Am I doing this right?” while the flash of a disposable camera goes off, illuminating a sunburnt and feebly constructed wad of curled fingers that will convey to friends back home all the pleasures enjoyed on a 10-day, Mai Tai-fueled debauch.
The fashaka: Would that you may never behold this most devastating of shakas. Firm, resolute, and haunting, this stab of a shaka hits you in the gut when, for example, you speed by someone attempting to cross a busy street and then dare glance in your rear-view mirror, only to find said someone throwing up a blaring gesture of sardonic mahalos. So shame!
Da boys shaka: Typically displayed fo’ da boys during beachside tailgating sessions, this loose shaka uses a low scooping technique. When demonstrating this shaka, its Heineken-suckling practitioners draw wide, lock-kneed stances and slightly tilt their chins up. Beware: This shaka can shift directly into an uppercut punch when/if da boys feel threatened.
Can’t get enough? We’ve got a full Shaka Field Guide video filmed around Honolulu. Watch it here.
This story was originally published in our Charm Issue, on shelves through October 2015.