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THIS GUY'S BEHIND ALL THE BUZZ

The first act of urban guerrilla art occurred in broad daylight, with a chain saw.

Drivers headed across the N Boulevard bridge toward downtown Tampa saw him: a tall guy studying a dead pine by the sidewalk. He carried a smallish chain saw I would later learn he calls "Little Precious."

As he worked, a bold face and body emerged in the bark, a deep-carved, detailed wooden tiki. Then Jeff Chouinard, the guy with the chain saw, was gone. To the store for a Popsicle, it turns out, random roadside art being thirsty work.

Mystery tikis started appearing from the trunks of dead-but-still-standing trees around town - near the interstate, on Davis Islands, beside the rusty barbed wire around the old armory, near a vacant lot. In a city in the process of transforming itself into something more interesting, these tikis were that.

"I knew it!" Tom Snelling, the city's director of planning and development, said when I told him about Chouinard. "I knew he was a ninja artist, that was my gut feeling. Everybody I've talked to loves it."

From Robin Nigh, manager of the city's art programs: "I think it's fun."

Chouinard is a 46-year-old former repo man who tried tiki carving after he lost a salesman's job. He was utterly hooked. He's a surfer dude who got his first chain saw as payback from a buddy who lost a cast net Chouinard lent him. He wore that first one out in six months.

He lives in a shady 1928 bungalow near the Hillsborough River with a big white American bulldog named Dinky, who is not. She is white with a black and brown patch over one eye and a tail that thumps the porch. The CEO, he calls her.

His yard is like some mad botanical Santa's workshop: Tikis of every size, and logs that will one day become them, surround his house like wild sprouting mushrooms. A series of short, fierce tiki sentries carved from his mother's mango tree - "Mango carves really nice," he says - are in progress. Everything but the dog is blanketed in sawdust, especially his shoes.

Oak, he says, is like carving stone, but he likes cypress and cedar. Surf Soul Tiki says the logo on his pickup.

He gets two kinds of customers: The regular joe who wants a kitschy tiki by the pool, and hard-core tiki lifestylers who wear tropical shirts and mix mai tais to sip in their tiki mugs. Hey, there's room for everyone.

Chouinard says he doesn't make much money, but he also doesn't have to lie to a boss about being sick when the waves are up over in Cocoa Beach.

And "Little Precious"? His chain saw (and Dinky) are his companions, so, "probably for the same reason Tom Hanks named his volleyball Wilson," he says.

So how did he become Tampa's random urban tiki artist?

When you are always looking for wood, he explains, you get good at bird-dogging dead-but-useful trees. He kept passing the one at the base of the bridge and thinking how bad it looked. (His word was more colorful.) "I'm going to make it a tiki," he thought, so a couple of weeks ago, he got Little Precious out there and did.

He liked it so much he thought: "I'm going to have to make a bunch more of these now." He's at 11 so far.

People notice. Police stop to inquire. Motorists honk and wave and give him thumbs-up. And a city is a little more interesting for what's in it.

- scarlton@tampabay.com

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