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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 10, 2005

Hale'iwa sign's surfer rides again

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

Tatsuro Ota of Shizuoka, Japan, puts the finishing touches on the Hale'iwa sign he repaired this week. Ota, 43, said he restored the vandalized sign because he loves Hawai'i.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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HALE'IWA Without a word to anyone, completely on his own, Tatsuro Ota made his way to what was left of the vandalized red, white, blue and yellow North Shore sign at the east edge of town early this week, then quietly went about his work.

Ota, 43, a visitor from Shizuoka, Japan, placed a hefty container of paints, primers, saws, files, brushes and assorted tools next to the guardrail on Kamehameha Highway, ascended a 6-foot folding ladder and affixed a 2-foot chunk of surfboard core foam over a gaping hole in the middle of the 5-by-8-foot sign.

Until 15 months ago, a stylish wave-riding surfer wearing bright red board shorts adorned the sign. Then, over the weekend of Oct. 24, 2004, some spoilsport took a saw and hacked the surfer off at the ankles leaving only a pair of tan feet atop a yellow surfboard.

By Tuesday afternoon, when it was apparent that Ota a surfboard shaper by trade was sculpting the foam into the shape of a new surfer, passers-by took notice.

Some honked approval. But Ota, who was born deaf, couldn't hear them.

Those who stopped to thank him learned the friendly stranger spoke little English and was unable to read their lips. Somehow, though, he seemed to understand when they asked why he was doing it. Ota would pull out a small yellow pad and write a note saying, "I love Hawai'i!!"

"Stopping to photograph this sign is a highlight of our North Shore tour," said Roger McCawley, who operates Chameleon TravelClub tours, after he unloaded a van full of tourists next to where Ota was working.

"Everyone always wants to know why there's a hole in the middle of the sign. When I tell them someone cut out the surfer, they say, 'Oooh.' "

Over the years, North Shore residents had become resigned to vandals and thieves terrorizing the three colorful local icons for which Haleiwa Main Street, now known as the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, had paid $5,000 apiece more than a decade ago. All were on the Joseph P. Leong bypass.

The signs had been featured on T-shirts, posters, postcards and brochures and tens of thousands of tourists had taken snapshots of the friendly markers that beckoned travelers to Hale'iwa for "Food, Gas, Shops, Beaches."

The signs proved too popular for their own good.

Each weighed 200 pounds and had been bolted and welded to three heavy-duty metal posts. Nevertheless, two were stolen in July 1996 both later recovered and re-posted.

Then, thieves made off with the third sign in March 2001, and that one was never seen again. The same fate awaited one that was re-swiped in September 2004.

After vandals carved the surfer out of the one remaining sign last year, the community seemed to give up. No plans were made to rebuild the missing signs, nor to replace the missing surfer.

But the community had not figured on Tatsuro Ota.

When McCawley realized Ota was attempting to sculpt his surfer using nothing more than a stamp-sized tourist magazine photo as a guide, he gave Ota a larger picture he carries to show tourists what the sign used to look like.

Tom Gaupp stopped to inquire and created a video podcast about Ota for his HawaiiSurfSessionReport. That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, Gaupp said he'd heard from people around the world who were captivated by Ota's story.

By Thursday, Ota had brought along a friend, Kyoko Tomita, who was able to translate for him through international sign language. With Tomita serving as interpreter, Ota explained that he had come to Hawai'i last March and learned about the vandalized welcome sign.

When he returned for a two-month visit in late October, he decided to give Hawai'i a little Christmas present for the aloha it had shown during his stay. He spent $500 for materials to do the repairs and drove from the place he's staying near Waikiki to Hale'iwa each day in a gold 1989 Volvo. He bought the car to travel around the island and will get rid of it before he leaves the day after Christmas.

Ota completed the sculpture in three days. In the process, he removed all the graffiti and stickers and repainted the whole sign. Yesterday, he spent two hours on finishing touches.

When he was done, the whole thing looked like new. And where once there had been an empty hole, there stood a new tanned surfer in bright red board shorts.

Ota's surfer is not quite identical to the one that was there before.

One difference is Ota's surfer appears to be giving the shaka sign. On closer inspection, it's clear the surfer is extending the thumb, little finger and index finger on his right hand a sort of triple-finger shaka.

The gesture was done intentionally, said Ota, before taking off to watch the Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters trials.

The hand signal, he said, is the international sign for love.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: Haleiwa Main Street, now known as the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, paid $5,000 apiece for three Hale'iwa signs more than a decade ago. A previous version of this story incorrectly said the city had paid for the signs.