Today, at what he considers one of Tampa’s Cuban cultural and historical epicenters, Tampa native and local Surf Soul Tiki artist Jeff Chouinard told the story of how he fell in love with carving tikis and why he has decided to transform dead and forgotten palm trees into pieces of art for the community to enjoy.
After having spent 13 years repossessing cars and running the recovery and collections department for a finance company (which he says was “raping people of their money for corporate America”), he was tired of what he was doing and decided to leave that career. As a lifelong surfer and Polynesian enthusiast, he wanted to enjoy handcrafted Tikis in his home.
When he realized he couldn’t afford to buy Tikis, he decided to make one himself. He said to himself, “It's wood and tools. I can do this. I used to build furniture in the basement with my dad, and I've built hot rods.” He went down to Harbor Freight, bought $50 worth of cheap tools and wood, borrowed a chainsaw, and made his first Tiki. He said he fell in love and started making them constantly.
That was five years ago. Since then he estimates he's made between 500 and 600 tikis. Now he's started a whole new project. He made phone calls to city of Tampa officials to find out about the many lone dead palm trees he has seen around town over the last few years. He says they didn’t respond or seem very interested. What became his deciding principle was the old saying, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
The rogue tiki operation was going well until Tuesday. While carving his eighth tiki he was stopped by a police officer. He provided the officer with a photo proving the tree was in fact dead before he began carving. The police officer was very nice, but told him that he was going to submit his information to the city and the Department of Parks and Rec. Chouinard says he already has an attorney ready to defend him and any fines he may incur. For his next rogue tiki carvings, he says,“If you’ve ever read The Art of War, I don't know the exact Sun Tzu quote... but it's basically that a moving target is harder to hit.”
Feedback from the community has been very positive so far. He says their only concern is that the trees are in fact dead. As soon as he assured interested parties that he's only carving dead trees, everyone was on board. He said that when Creative Loafing’s Todd Bates came by to do a photo shoot for this story, “There must have been 50 people that honked and slowed down in support.”
Chouinard explains the history of tiki enthusiasts. He says it is essentially a lifestyle of escapism — that beyond the mundane and meaningless confines of cubicle confinement, “a lot of people look at the island sort of existence as something they wish they could have. It's the sort of simplicity of that existence that inspires them."
His entire yard and front porch have become his workshop and what looks like a tiki garden. There are piles of wood shavings everywhere. His yard is still very welcoming; it is filled with flowering plumeria trees and hibiscus bushes, and of course driftwood and tikis, both finished pieces and works in progress.
After just two years of teaching himself how to carve and with no instruction, he was approached by two world-famous tiki artists, Benzart Davis and Will Anders of South Florida. Both have become his mentors. “They are the best guys in the game; those are the guys I call when I need help,” he says.
His greatest inspiration for Polynesian culture stems from his grandfather, the only living plank holder from the most decorated ship in naval history, the USS Nicholas. “We were once talking about the whole phenomenon of what happened after WWII when all the GI’s came back.” His grandfather said a lot of them served on beautiful South Pacific Islands adorned with tikis.
He thinks that GI's, having endured daily near-death experiences, returned to the States hardened and easily bored. “They came back to their boring, mundane lives. Thus, the emergence of the Hot Rod and motorcycle movement was founded, as well as the recreation of South Pacific Island culture. Tiki restaurants were everywhere back then.” He says that during the Vietnam War the aesthetic appeal of the Polynesian lifestyle disappeared, but he believes that there's been a resurgence of interest.
As for the Rogue Tiki Project, he says he plans to take it statewide. “I'm going to be taking my little chainsaw, which I have named 'Little Precious,' with me everywhere I go.” He hopes to do some pieces in Cocoa Beach and Fort Lauderdale next time he goes surfing. He already has people in California interested in having him carve there.
Aside from being an artist, Jeff Chouinard has given back to the community through several fundraising and charity events. He's donated pieces and raised money for Hooked on Hope, the Brandon Charity Foundation, and many silent auctions. Most recently he held a fundraiser for a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy. He raised $2,000 selling his artwork for that event. He also volunteers every summer at a camp called Faces of Courage. One of his most notable achievements is that one of his pieces was put on display this year, at the famous tiki restaurant and bar The Mai-Kai, in Fort Lauderdale.
You can find his rogue tikis at Al Lopez park, as well as on Davis Islands and around Riverside Heights. Keep your eyes open when driving around town. Every tiki is unique and completely different from the last.