The History of Tiki Carvings

Tiki Statues in Bora Bora Island in French Polynesia | Andrea Izzotti

When my sister went to Hawaii years ago, she brought me back a small Tiki wooden carving. The perfect gift from Hawaii, I thought. Every time I look at this carving, I think of Hawaii and the island culture. Of course I also think of my sister! Tiki statues, the totem poles, masks and all the carvings are a great insight into the Hawaiian culture and creativity as well as some of the religious beliefs involved in some of the creations.

Tiki carvings have similar characteristics in each statue, even though every hand carved statue is very different. Each face of a Tiki carving has a large mouth. Whether the mouth is smiling or frowning, the mouth is very pronounced. The eyes are sometimes extremely popped open or very squeezed shut.

Three beautiful wooden Tiki sculptures in the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park, Big Island, Hawaii | Marlon Trottmann

The Tiki statues were first carved by the Maori tribe to use as boundary markers for sacred areas. The statues originally represented one of the four gods in Hawaiian culture. The four gods were Ku, Kane, Lono, and Kanaloa. Kane was considered to be the god of the universe and the creator. He rules the natural world. A statue made to look like Kane might have an almost human-like body in appearance.

Ku is thought to be the god of war. If you see a Tiki statue with an open mouth, it is most likely a representation of Ku. The open mouth symbolizes the idea he is devouring his enemies. Lono is the god of rain, fertility, music and peace. Often the statue made for Lono has a large belly for the fertility aspect.  Kanaloa is the god of the sea and you might see a statue for this god with squid-like dreadlocks.

Tiki statues became popular in modern culture as the Tiki craze began to catch on in the 1930s. Several Tiki-themed restaurants opened up on the west coast and in Florida during that decade. Tiki statues that are authentic are more expensive and are not mass produced. Look for a unique statue that is being carved by hand as you are shopping in Hawaii.

Ancient Polynesian style tiki wooden carvings greet visitors to Ki’i Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. | David A Litman

Tiki carvings are used inside and outside of homes for more than just decorating. Many believe the large mouths are used to frighten away evil spirits, so they keep Tiki statues toward the entrance of their home for protection.

The Ki’I statue at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is one of the most visited Tiki Statues in Hawaii. It is also one of the largest. The Tiki statue is located at the entrance of a recreated Maori village. The statue is of Tiki. Tike was the first human, which tells the story of how people began here on earth.

Three wooden Polynesian tiki carvings on Oahu, Hawaii | Leigh Anne Meeks

Tiki Masks and totem poles are a lot like Tiki statue carvings. They too have carvings on them that represent gods or symbols and may be used for protection. The masks and/or totem poles are each carved with specific features to represent the identity of its meaning; strength, courage, health, etc. A fully carved mask might take on the spirit and personality of its god or trait, becoming the presence of the specific knowledge and power. While a fully carved totem pole has different sections to represent each identity or feature.

Tikis at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island in Hawaii

Tiki carvings are an older art form. Every hand carved Tiki is unique. Used both for spiritual direction, protection, and decoration, the Tiki carvings are synonymous with Hawaiian culture and all things Tiki!