North Shore’s famous Haleiwa signs have a sad, heartfelt and complicated story
The original three signs are gone and two of them have been replaced, but stopping to take a photo is a tradition that continues.
Did you know, the Haleiwa signs you see when driving to the town aren’t the originals? Actually, far from it. In 1996, Californian artist Carole Beller was paid $15,000 to erect three signs that would draw attention to the North Shore’s iconic surf town, Haleiwa. These signs ended up featuring red boardshort-clad surfers in the pit of a wave with white lettering spelling out the town’s name.
The signs were a hit, and the tradition of stopping to take a photo with them on the way to the North Shore was born. However, the attention also attracted vandals. Before long, each of the signs were covered in graffiti and one sign was even stolen. After constant restoration projects, the North Shore Chamber of Commerce began distancing itself from the signs, as they were becoming a financial burden. Finally, in 2005, only one sign was left standing, however, its iconic surfer had been sawed off back in 2004. The perpetrator only left a pair of tan feet atop a yellow surfboard.
Enter Tatsuro Ota, a 43-year-old Japanese surfboard shaper, who began repairing the sign on Kamehameha Highway while visiting Oahu. Driving each day from Waikiki to Haleiwa in a 1986 gold Volvo, he spent $500 of his own money to make the repairs. Locals would lean out of their car windows to shout thanks and support, even though Ota couldn’t hear them. Ota is deaf. His companion, Kyoko Tomita, would translate for him on occasion, and when asked why he was doing this, Ota would write on a yellow pad, “I love Hawaii!” After three days of backbreaking work under the hot Hawaiian sun, a new surfer stood on the sign, wearing red boardshorts and with a outstretched hand throwing up a shaka, the international gesture for aloha.
But the story continues. In June 2006, just six months after Ota finished his repairs, residents awoke to find an entirely new sign standing where the original had been. Haleiwa was still adorned in big white letters, but there was one key difference: The male surfer in shining red boardshorts was no longer there. Replacing him was a woman in a scarlet bikini and flowing brown hair. Written on the big yellow hibiscus flower, located below the surfer’s feet, read “Carole Beller.”
Turns out that the original sign, which had been redone by Ota, was taken down by Beller, who said she was only protecting her work as she holds the copyright to the signs unique design. Like Ota, Beller did this free-of-charge. And although the community was bewildered by this switch, with the North Shore Chamber of Commerce even filing a theft report with the police, the new sign has become synonymous with Haleiwa town.
Beller didn’t just erect one new sign however, she put up two. If you’re driving on Interstate H-2 heading toward the North Shore and take the bypass road to avoid Haleiwa, keep an eye out and you’ll come across a familiar face. Adorned in his bright red board shorts is a replicate of the original surfer design, standing tall in a wave, beckoning you toward Haleiwa town.
It’s been over a decade and the two signs erected in 2006 are still standing strong, welcoming you to the North Shore and spreading the aloha one photo-op at a time.