When Fish Become Art - Explaining Gyotaku, The Japanese Printing Method

Art History

September 8, 2019

For around 20,000 years, people have been making prints of things they find in nature. The first plant printing on paper can be found on a Syrian manuscript dating back to the early 1100s AD. In Japan, a particular type of nature-oriented printing technique emerged in the 19th century. Gyotaku, which literally translates into “fish” (gyo) and “rubbing” (taku), is an art that produces imprints of fish through the method of rubbing. The method itself is similar to Chinese stone rubbing, an ancient method of reproducing inscriptions originally made in metal, bone or stone.

However, it has been speculated that Gyotaku did nor originally begin as an art form, but instead as a means of recording the size and characteristics of fishermen’s daily catches. What began as a handy way to make a record of the size and shape of a fish, over time, the traditional technique evolved into a genre of scientific illustration, an education tool and a modern art method.

Gyotaku: The Ancient Japanese Art of Printing Fish

The Origins of Gyotaku

The earliest known example of Gyotaku dates from 1857, featuring a trace of the form of a carp caught in the Mogami River. The print can now be seen in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture, at The Homma Museum of Art, which boasts the richest collection of historic gyotaku prints anywhere in the world.

Gyotaku was first introduced by fishermen, who were using the technique to make a record of their trophy catches. According to another legend, it was an emperor of Japan who wanted to keep an accurate account of all his catches and commissioned prints to be made of the different types of fish that he caught.

As photography was a new technology still unavailable to all, fishermen would keep a chest of rice paper, nontoxic sumi-e ink and a set of brushes on board so they could easily and immediately make an ink etching of their catch. After that, the fish would be rinsed off of ink and then released, taken to the market or eaten.

These utilitarian prints were incredibly life-like and accurate, often being used to determine the fishing contests in the country. When done properly they retained even subtle patterns and textures of the fish. The relatively simple black ink prints later developed into an art form, where fishermen would add rich colors and environmental details to their work with brushes.

The knowledge of Gyotaku was first spread to the western audience in the mid 20th century. It was due to the 1950s Gyotaku exhibition in Tokyo organized by an enthusiast group called Gyotaku-no-kai and Yoshio Hiyama's 1964 book Gyotaku: The Art and Technique of the Japanese Fish Printwhich further introduced it to the international audience. Institutions such as the Smithsonian have also recognized the potential of the technique in conservation work.

Gyotaku by Naoki Hayashi, the technique through history
Gyotaku by Naoki Hayashi

The Technique

Gyotaku is mostly performed through direct and indirect printing methods.

The direct method (Chokusetsu-ho), which is more similar to the original methodology, involves cleaning the fish and covering it with ink and than applying wet washi paper onto it by rubbing and pressing.

The indirect method (kansetsu-ho) involves adhering washi paper, silk, or other fabric to the fish using rice paste. The fish offers the detail of its relief through the silk, and the ink is applied painstakingly to the silk while adhered to the fish, with tampos. While the direct method is much faster, the indirect one yields more precise results.

There is also a method of transfer (tensha-ho), a lesser-used technique meant for transferring the fish onto hard surfaces. It involves preparing and inking the fish as in the direct method, lifting the image by pressing a piece of nylon or polyethylene on it and carefully placing it onto the surface of choice.

Heather Fortner - Spadefish Samba, Atlantic Spadefish, the technique through history
Heather Fortner - Spadefish Samba, Atlantic Spadefish

Gyotaku in Contemporary Art

While many fishing villages in Japan continue to use Gyotaku in a purely utilitarian way, it has also spread as an art form both in the country and abroad. Today, the form is open to dynamic interpretation, with artists experimenting with different paints, but also different subjects other than fish. For example, contemporary artist Rachel Ramirez printed an entire series of Gyotaku using only roadkill she encountered in Algarve, Portugal.

On the other hand, the Hawaiian artist Naoki Hayashi is a purist when it comes to the methods, seeing his practice directly descending from traditional Japanese fishing culture. Practicing this art since being 11 years old, he uses non-toxic acrylic paint and Japanese shoji paper. An avid diver and fisherman who has a deep respect for the ocean and its creatures, he always catches the fish himself, prints it and then eats it. Featuring fish in their true color, he seeks to create compositions that reflect how they are found in nature.

Another contemporary artist, Heather Fortner uses only dead fish that wash up on her local beach to create Gyotaku prints. She has been producing Gyotaku since 1976 when she was first introduced to the art on the island of Lana’i in the Hawaiian Islands. For 30 years, her life involved working on and around the ocean, and her art serves as the ultimate blend of the artistic and marine realms. She makes several prints of each fish before burying them in her yard for fertilizer. Not wasting anything in her creative process, the artist wants to highlight fish as a limited resource that’s being depleted rapidly from overfishing.

Featured image: Gyotaku, taken at Omori, Tokyo, via J.G. Wang. All images used for illustrative purposes.