One of the more beautiful things to come out of the tiki renaissance of the last couple decades is the re-emergence of tiki carving as an art form. A lot of that carving happens in Southern California, but excellent tiki carvers can be found all around the globe. Today I’m sharing an interview with one of the best out there, who can be found in the unlikely Midwest: Dave Hansen, who sells his carvings as Lake Tiki Woodcrafts, and who may be known to some as Lake Surfer.
Even if you’re not familiar with Dave Hansen’s name, it’s likely you’ve seen and admired his work. His carvings are installed at some of the best tiki bars in the world: Smuggler’s Cove, Hale Pele and especially Foundation all have Lake Tiki pieces—not as decor afterthoughts, but as meaningful showpieces in these immersive environments. His ability to render fine details and his beautiful sense of scale and balance come together in a distinctive style that has professional polish while still having the accessible, organic feel of classic tiki.
Humuhumu: When did you start carving, and what got you started?
Dave Hansen: June of 2002. I’m a surfer here on the Great Lakes, and I wanted a tiki. Naturally, living here in the Midwest, you can’t just get a tiki locally. And I had no clue where to get one since back then there wasn’t the internet commerce like today. So, one day I found a small log, grabbed a whittling knife and set out to carve a tiki. A month or so later, I found using a rotary tool was quicker and easier for a beginning carver.
Humuhumu: What was your next carving project?
Dave: It would be years later before I started getting commercial jobs, but that first year I did catch the carving bug and set out to carve tikis to sell at a yearly surfer’s party here on Lake Michigan called the Dairyland Surf Classic. The tikis were a hit, and I sold out. Many of my friends still have them! I have to admit, they were pretty crude compared to what I’m doing now!
Humuhumu: Which came first for you: tiki or carving?
Dave: Since childhood, I’ve always been an artist. It was a talent I honed through grade school, and my focus in high school was to get into a private art college. I succeeded in that, but my interests were in Graphic Design. Freshman year we were exposed to sculpture, so I have some background in that. But I had never really carved anything from wood until I started carving tikis. So it was like learning how to carve by looking at Polynesian and South Pacific art. Everything I do has been self taught through trial and error.
Humuhumu: What do you turn to for inspiration?
Dave: I discovered the online community of Tiki Central the fall of 2002 while looking for pictures of tikis on the internet. I was influenced by a lot of the early carvers on there… Gecko, Tiki Diablo, Basement Kahuna and Crazy Al. These guys were detail freaks and that fit with the type of work I was striving for. It was great sharing work on Tiki Central, critiquing and offering tips to each other. As I got better at my work, I spent hours poring over old books in the Arts Reference section of my central library. I wanted to do things no one else was doing. Things that no one else had thought of doing. And I wanted to do them in the old traditional style. To make my work look like the old carvings I’d seen in tiki bars around the country. The last 5 years I’ve been focusing more on Polynesian Pop and how to apply that to my work. I spend a lot of time looking at old tiki bar signage, matchbook art and menu art.
Humuhumu: What tools do you use?
Dave: A mix of traditional hand chisels and mallets, and also some power tools to remove wood and do detail work. I use a chainsaw sometimes just to remove wood and cut logs. I never really got the hang of chainsaw carving tikis and I’ve found that I personally have more control and detail carving big pieces with chisels and a mallet.
Humuhumu: What are your favorite things to carve?
Dave: I always like getting back to my roots once in a while carving a 4-foot tiki log, even though commissions for those are rare now. I love doing wall hanging tikis and masks. Custom sign work is always a lot of fun, especially when the customer is open to me doing the design work for them. Lately I’ve also found a lot of joy in building intricate scale models of iconic signage from tiki bars and restaurants from the past.
Humuhumu: Where are some of your favorite pieces today?
Dave: I’m really proud of a large 9-foot log that I did for a car club here in Southern Wisconsin. To date, it’s the largest piece I’ve ever done, and I carved the whole thing in the span of a week with just chisels. I did a series of extra large tiki wall hangings in Poplar that I’m super proud of. There’s hundreds of carve marks on them, and the texture really adds a ton of character to each piece. Many of them reside in private collections now. There’s also a pair of 6-foot Marquesan poles that I carved from really hard Ash wood that reside at Foundation Tiki Bar. Those will always be memorable because their delivery was delayed a day by one of the worst blizzards Milwaukee has experienced. And I’m really proud of all the scale models of tiki bar and restaurant signs that I’ve done the last 3 years.
Humuhumu: What piece are you most proud of?
Dave: It’s kind of funny, but the piece I’m most proud of doesn’t even have a tiki theme. But it resides in a bar that has a New Guinea, Africa safari and travel theme. That would be Longitude of Oakland, California. I was approached by Lee, the owner of the former Lucky Joe’s Tiki Room here in Milwaukee to recreate a famous tiki theme mosaic for his bar. Since I had never done tile work, he asked if I could do one from wood. I’d never thought of anything like that. The result was spectacular, and as soon I posted pictures of it on Facebook, Suzanne of Longitude asked if I could create a large mosaic with a safari theme. I jumped right at it, and upon its delivery it was the final piece that was hung before Longitude opened for business. You can’t miss the mosaic, it hangs right above the doors to the bar. I’m very proud of that piece, and I still beam when I see photos of it.
Humuhumu: What’s your dream carving gig?
Dave: Of course it would be to be handed over full decorating duties of a commercial tiki bar! An opportunity to create and carve tikis, signs and wall hangings. I’d also love to tap into my past as a Graphic Designer and create menus, signage and advertising. I have been offered wonderful opportunities over at Foundation Tiki Bar here in Milwaukee, and that’s nearly been my dream carving gig realized. It’s always fun to work with Don Nelson on new projects and then enjoy my work when I visit the bar. Its really kind of become my portfolio of tiki decor. Working with Martin Cate at Smuggler’s Cove has been a blast as well as Blair Reynolds at Hale Pele. It’s so cool that a guy like me in the Midwest gets to have his art in bars way out on the West Coast. But I’d love to work with any new businesses that spring up. I’m ready to carve! I’d also like to have the opportunity to create for a solo art show at a gallery here in Milwaukee. I would really love to share my art with people who might not be familiar with tiki and Oceanic art.
Humuhumu: Do you have non-carving creative pursuits?
Dave: I still dabble in Graphic Design when asked. I’ve been known to create logos for folks, wedding invitations, etc. I’ve also started freehand painting more since so much of my tiki work involves painting.
Dave was born in Downey, California, and though he’s lived in Milwaukee his whole life, there’s still a lot of California in him: aside from tiki carving, he’s a surfer, skateboarder and snowboarder. He makes the rounds to present his art at tiki events all around the country. Dave lives in Milwaukee with his son, Riley, and wife, Jenni.