Tag Archives: shaka

Shaka Hand Signs

Main Piece

Shortly after the informant’s winter recess ended and her spring semester began, she made several remarks on how Hawaiian habits with regard to traffic and pedestrian behavior were different and even more relaxed than Californian relations on the road.

Informant: “In Hawaii, most people do not wave at the cars like I remember you doing after they let you cross.”

Collector: “Why is that?”

Informant: “It would seem very unusual to them. Most people do the Shaka sign to thank the drive and to send them on a good path.”

Collector: “Does that come from surf culture?”

Informant: “No, it’s from Hawaiian culture. It’s supposed to let others know Aloha Spirit, and lets people know a sense of gratitude.”


Hand signals hold a unique identity in any region where they are popular. It is interesting to see how in some cultures that hand signals can have opposite meanings, which can sometimes be offensive. The Shaka seems to defy that commonality, though, and seems to be a peaceful and relaxed expression wherever a person is. The motion seems to have a much more important impact in Hawaii, though, and seems to express a lot in everyday use.

The Story Behind the Shaka

“Oh it was just a guy who, the story behind the shaka is that there was a guy who was really sweet in Hawaii and he used to wave to everyone, and I think one day, he lost the three middle fingers in his hand and so he would wave at people and it would only be his thumb and pinkie finger, and that’s how everyone would wave back the same way and that’s ow the shaka was invented.”


The informant is a 19 year old, studying psychology at the University of Southern California. Her ethnicity is half Filipino, half Japanese, and she is second generation American. She was born and grew up in Hawaii. She lived in suburban town called Ewa Beach, on the island Oahu. Contrary to Hawaiian stereotypes, she does not know how to surf or swim well, nor hula dance, though she enjoyed drag racing and playing volleyball. She spent half of her education in private schools, and half in public school.


The informant provided the story after being asked about Hawaii urban legends, or the stories behind a Hawaiian custom. She had heard the story from her friends and family on Hawaii, and considered it a well-known story amongst people who have lived on Hawaii for a few years.


A “shaka” is a hand gesture that is made by holding your palm flat and fingers open, then closing your rind, middle, and index finger—it is the American sign language symbol for the letter “y.” You then “wave” the shaka by twisting your wrist side to side. It is often thought to mean “Right on!” or “Holla!” or “Cool!” It can take the place of a ave hello or goodbye, as a much less formal salutation or farewell; this is often accompanied by a “What up, dude?” or “Later!” It is also sometimes used in scuba diving to mean “so cool” or sometimes to represent laughing. It is usually associated with surfer dudes in particular, but also just anyone from Hawaii, or even California.

The story the informant tells is how the shaka was created. Apparently, there was a very nice man who would wave at people with his thumb and pinkie finger, and everyone would wave back the same way. This portrays the so-called “founder” of one of the main symbols of Hawaii as nice and sweet. It is similar to countries describing their national founders with ideals everyone should strive for, like George Washington and the cherry tree and “I cannot tell a lie.” Just as George Washington was honest, Hawaii’s is friendly.

Whether there was actually a man who waved at everyone with only two fingers or not, no one knows—that is not what is important. It is the fact that this symbolic hand gesture that is an important part of Hawaiian culture needed a story to explain it. They made the figure who created the gesture a paragon of Hawaiian ideals (friendly, welcoming, nice). The fact that the story is still around demonstrates how important the shaka and these ideals are to Hawaiians.