Gyotaku: The ancient Japanese art of printing fish – K. Erica Dodge


Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Jessica Ruby How big was that fish you caught? This big? This big? This big? Without photographic evidence, there’s nothing that proves you caught a whopper, and that’s been true since the dawn of fishing. In fact, hundreds of years ago, long before photography could capture the moment, Japanese fishermen invented their own way to record trophy catches. They called it Gyotaku. Gyotaku is the ancient art of printing fish that originated in Japan as a way to record trophy catches prior to the modern day camera. Gyo means fish and taku means impression. There are several different stories about how Gyotaku came about, but it basically started with fishermen needing a way to record the species and size of the fish they caught over 100 years ago. Fishermen took paper, ink, and brushes out to sea with them. They told stories of great adventures at sea. Since the Japanese revered certain fish, the fishermen would take a rubbing from these fish and release them. To make the rubbing, they would paint the fish with non-toxic sumi-e ink and print them on rice paper. This way they could be released or cleaned and sold at market. The first prints like this were for records only with no extra details. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that they began painting eye details and other embellishments onto the prints. One famous nobleman, Lord Sakai, was an avid fisherman, and, when he made a large catch, he wanted to preserve the memory of the large, red sea bream. To do so, he commissioned a fisherman to print his catch. After this, many fisherman would bring their Gyotaku prints to Lord Sakai, and if he liked their work, he would hire them to print for him. Many prints hung in the palace during the Edo period. After this period, Gyotaku was not as popular and began to fade away. Today, Gyotaku has become a popular art form, enjoyed by many. And the prints are said to bring good luck to the fishermen. But the art form is quite different than it used to be. Most artists today learn on their own by trial and error. Before the artist begins to print, the fish needs to be prepared for printing. First, the artist places the fish on a hollowed out surface. Then the artist spreads the fins out and pins them down on the board to dry. They then clean the fish with water. When it comes time to print, there are two different methods. The indirect method begins with pasting moist fabric or paper onto the fish using rice paste. Then, the artist uses a tompo, or a cotton ball covered in silk, to put ink on the fabric or paper to produce the print. This method requires more skill and great care needs to be taken when pulling the paper off the fish so the paper doesn’t tear. In the direct method, the artist paints directly on the fish, and then gently presses the moist fabric or paper into the fish. With both of these methods, no two prints are exactly alike, but both reveal dramatic images of the fish. For the final touch, the artist uses a chop, or a stamp, and signs their work, and can hold it up to say, “The fish was exactly this big!”

local_offerevent_note September 11, 2019

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