The History of Surfing’s Iconic Shaka Sign

The shaka sign, also known as “hang ten” or “hang loose” among surfers, is almost as iconic as luaus on Hawaii islands. In fact, it’s moved past Hawaii to California beaches and beyond. Wherever you find surfers, you’ll probably find the shaka. So, where did this famous hand gesture come from? Keep reading to find out!

The History of the Shaka Sign

Made by extending the thumb and pinky while keeping the middle fingers curled, the shaka has several meanings, including “aloha” and “hang loose.” Not only is the hand sign a friendly gesture, but there’s fascinating history to it that may surprise you. Let’s learn all about it!

History of the Shaka Sign

The origin of the shaka may vary depending on who you talk to. The most famous story involves Hamana Kalili, a sugar mill worker who was in an accident that resulted in some missing fingers on his right hand. All he had left was a pinky and thumb.

Hamana Kalili worked as a sugar train guard. Children imitated his hands by creating what we now know as the shaka gesture to tell other kids that the coast was clear for them to steal sugar cane – kind of saying ‘it’s all good!’

There’s another story that says Hamana was a guard at Sunset Beach and he used the gesture to show ‘all clear’ and that the sugar train was free and train jumpers.

There are several different stories about how the shaka sign started in Hawaii many years ago.
There are several different stories about how the shaka sign started in Hawaii many years ago. (Credit: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock)

Fun fact: While the gesture came from Hawaii, ‘shaka’ isn’t a Hawaiin word.

Although the original shaka supposedly started off with Kalili’, the Kahuku sugar mill worker, it didn’t become popular for many years. This changed in the twentieth century when tv became popular. The symbol frequently appeared when used car salesman Lippy Espinda rose to fame by using the now-famous hand gesture coupled with saying “shaka brah!” at the end of every commercial. 

By the mid-1970s, the shaka started to become a popular sign around the world. Surf culture began to grow, and so did travel to Hawaii. The shaka sign achieved great popularity worldwide and is now used as the ultimate symbol for ‘island style vibes.’

The Shaka Sign Today

Once shaka spread from beaches in Hawaii and California surfers picked up on it, it became a thing in many places, including Australia and New York. People, especially teens, use it while skateboarding, windsurfing, or doing anything they think is cool.

Since the shaka sign represents a free-spirit and happy vibe, you can really see anyone using it these days. It’s now a popular hang ten emoji used in texting and on social media sites. I’ve even seen it as a part of logos for various companies.

You can think of the Hawaiin shaka today as a constant reminder that everything’s gonna be okay. It’s all good!

Today, people use shaka around the world as a friendly gesture.
Today, people use shaka around the world as a friendly gesture. (Credit:

What Does the Shaka Sign Mean? 

The unmistakable pinky and thumb shaka has had multiple meanings as the symbol has evolved and spread across various ethnic cultures. While the origin of the shaka means a Hawaiin greeting similar to “aloha,” here are some other meanings:

  • Hang ten, a surfer term 
  • Hang loose
  • All right! 
  • How’s it going? 
  • Thanks! 
  • I see you! 

All of these have a unique surfer-style spin on them. In reality, this surfers sign can mean whatever you want it to, from “how’s it going” to “see you later!” It’s not necessarily about what it means, but about a peaceful and friendly attitude and state of mind. Think island life!

The shaka sign has many meanings, like asking how someone is or showing that everything's all good.
The shaka sign has many meanings, like asking how someone is or showing that everything’s all good. (Credit: PintoArt/Shutterstock)

What is the Proper Way to Shaka?

Making the shaka hand sign is actually quite easy. All you have to do is make a loose fist, put your three middle fingers down while extending your thumb and pinky or little finger.

Some people give their shaka extra emphasis by kind of waving it by slightly turning their wrist back and forth. However, you can just throw the shaka up without a wave to keep it more chill.

Final Thoughts on the Shaka Sign

And there you have it! The iconic shaka symbol, broken down into a hundred years of history. Thanks to Hamana Kalili and the people of Hawaii, we have this cultural icon to remind us that it’s all good.

In Hawaii, the symbol represents unity and peace. Around the world, it has similar intentions and can be used in many different instances.

While the shaka is deeply rooted in Hawaii’s local culture, it now has meaning around the world. Toss your thumb and pinky out with your three middle fingers out to represent a feel-good vibe.

Hang ten and learn more surfing facts, tips, and destinations here!

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