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Master carver of ifit

Robert Phillip Taitano (1938 – 2022) was an established woodcarver who specializes in crafting art works, furniture and other decorative pieces from local hardwood.  A recognized Master Carver by the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency (CAHA), Taitano produced pieces for numerous dignitaries, including Guam governors, senators of the Guam Legislature, United States Congressional delegates, island judges, and even the former US President William “Bill” Clinton.

Taitano was born in the capital of Hagåtña, Guam, in 1938.  His parents are Francisca Santiago Taitano and Robert Flores Taitano.  After World War II, the Taitano family moved to the northern village of Yigo, where Taitano today continues his craft, working in “The Ifit Shop” adjacent to his home.  He also has a shop with the same name located in the Chamorro Village in Hagåtña where he markets highly sought-after wooden wares.  Taitano also sells his products on consignment with vendors at Guam’s department stores, Micronesia Mall in Dededo, Guam Premier Outlet in Tamuning and the Agana Shopping Center in Hagåtña.

Taitano was married to Antonia Santos Taitano, and together they had 10 children—three daughters and seven sons.  All, including his wife, helped in the production of various pieces to be sold.  Three of the Taitano sons continue the woodcarving practice after completing apprenticeships with their father.  Taitano also has 32 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Taitano was a carpenter by trade and a skilled craftsman.  He began as a general helper working for various construction companies, including the Charles Young Company and C&R Builders.  Taitano honed his skills in the construction trade until eventually opening his own business, Taitano Construction Company, in the late 1960s.  The company lasted for eight years, but stiff competition with larger companies eventually led to the small operation’s closure.

Taitano began carving in the early 1980s as a hobby, creating pieces and showcasing them in his family’s Yigo home.  This eventually turned into a business when Taitano started earning a profit making items at the request of house guests who saw what he carved and wanted the wooden items for themselves.

Largely self-taught, Taitano creates utilitarian items such as wooden tables, cabinets, clocks, cutting boards and kamyo siya (low-lying wooden stools with metal “teethed” or serrated attachments for grating coconuts).  He also creates wooden chongka boards, which are used in a game played with small seashells.  The chongka board is a flat board embedded with two parallel rows of fourteen  “sheds,” or cups, and two larger cups called “tills” at either end of the board.  Taitano  has even made a 12-foot-long bar with wine holders and four bar stools for a customer living in Florida.  Among some of Taitano’s most interesting carving requests was the manufacture of two wooden fireplace mantels for homes in Guam.  Some of his popular decorative pieces include one foot-tall wooden replicas of the ancient latte (stone structures with a capstone and pillar used as ancient Chamorro house supports) and stuffed ayuyu (coconut crab) mounted on wooden plaques.

Taitano was most well known for his use of the ifit (ifil, Intsia bijuga) tree, but he also uses various other local hardwoods to carve, including palo maria (Calophyllum brasiliense Cambess), monkey-pod  (Pithecellobium saman), ahgao (false elder, Premna gaudichaudii), gago (Polynesian ironwood, Casuarina equisetifolia) and da’ok (Calophyllum inophyllum).  Taitano uses modern tools to prepare woodwork either without embellishments, or containing storyboard-like depictions of island legends, such as Sirena and the Two Lovers, or engravings of the Guam seal and other island motifs.  His shop is filled with finished woodwork including turtles, local reef fish, latte and kamyo featuring engravings of the Official Guam Seal.  One piece in particular depicts a seaside view of Hagåtña Bay with a coconut tree in the foreground beside a river flowing into the ocean.  A traditional canoe (sakman) floats in the water, while the cliffs of Puntan Dos Amantes (Two Lovers Point) rise into the sky in the background.

Taitano’s carving technique was simple; he bases his designs on what the natural shape of the tree presents him.  Therefore, he was able to produce interesting uniquely shaped tables and plaques, among other items.  A sander and wood varnish or shoe polish are then used to provide a finish on the products.

Currently, Taitano and two apprentices prepare between twenty to forty pieces a week for customers.  His carvings are popular gift choices for those who want to present something that was uniquely Guam.  Military personnel and their families wanting mementos of their stay on island account for 40 percent to 60 percent of Taitano’s customers.  In addition, for years, Taitano has been commissioned to carve wooden nameplates for senators of the Guam Legislature, the speaker’s and judges’ gavels, and most recently, a podium for current Guam Governor Edward Baza Calvo.  Guam’s Delegates to the US Congress are regular customers for Taitano, asking the carver to make gift pieces for other dignitaries.

Taitano was also routinely asked to carve trophies for various island competitions or award recognitions.  After years of creating trophies for others, he received one himself in 1997, acquiring a Magalahi Art Award in Folk Arts from the Government of Guam in recognition of his exemplary services and contributions to the people of Guam.

Among Taitano’s most exceptional wooden pieces were thirteen high-backed ifit chairs used to seat President Clinton and other dignitaries during an historic visit to Guam in 1998.  Taitano was given only a couple of weeks to prepare the chairs for the President’s speech at the Governor Ricardo J. Bordallo Governor’s Complex in Adelup.  After the speech, the President sent US Secret Service Agents to Taitano’s shop in Yigo to carefully pack two of the chairs, which the President brought back to the White House.  The chairs are now housed in a museum in Hawai’i.  Taitano also carved the Presidential Seal as a gift for the Commander-in-Chief.

The chairs were so popular that the remaining chairs sold within two weeks after the historic visit.  Initially, Taitano kept the autographed chair where the president sat – which he engraved an image of a leaning coconut tree, a latte beneath it, and a pestle and mortar (lommok and lusong) in the foreground, and the ocean and Puntan Dos Amantes (Two Lover’s Point) cliffs in the background—but he eventually sold it to a nephew.

Taitano believed that the best way to preserve the skill of carving is to teach it to anyone—of any age—who wants to learn.  He was a popular presenter at island schools, and holds workshops for children, including those home-schooled.  In 2010 he worked with youth through a program of the Guam Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Taitano was also a regular at island cultural fairs in Guam and the neighboring Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.  He has represented Guam in Japan as a local folk artist during trips with the Guam Visitor’s Bureau.

On 29 April 2011, Taitano, along with three others – Tun Jack Lujan, Master Blacksmith; Maria Yatar MacDonald, Master Tattoo Artist; and Phillip Sablan, Master Weaver – were formally recognized in a ceremony as Master Folk Artists by the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency.  As part of his recognition, Taitano, along with the others, conducted the CAHA Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.

By Tanya M. Champaco Mendiola

For further reading

Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency. “Artists – Guam CAHA.”

Guam KAHA. ‘Kahan I Kutturan Guahan’: A Tribute to Masters of Chamorro Tradition.” Pacific Daily News. Last modified 20 December 2002.

Onedera-Salas, Selina. “The Master of the Ifit Canvas: Robert Taitano Aims to Keep Chamorro Wood Carving Alive.” Pacific Daily News, 8 May 2011.

Wong, Brad, “Guam History You Can Sit On.” Pacific Daily News, 26 November 1998.

––– “Presidential Carver Loses Workshop.” Pacific Daily News, 2 January 1999.