Gyotaku art work, Japan.

Gyotaku: The Traditional Japanese Art of Fish Printing

Japanese Art encompasses an extensive array of styles including sculpture, pottery, calligraphy and painting, to name a few. Japanese Art has a long history that ranges from the origins of human habitation in Japan in the 10th millennium BC up until today.

Traditional Japanese fish printing.

Gyotaku the word gyo, meaning “fish” and tako meaning “stone impression”, is the traditional Japanese art of fish printing that can be traced back to the mid-1800’s.

Traditional Japanese fish printing. | USFWS – Pacific Region

Gyotaku is a form of nature printing, a printing process that uses plants, animals, rocks and other natural subjects such as fish, to produce an image. Fish printing has been used initially by fishermen to record their catches and has since become an art form.

Gyotaku uses fish or sea creatures as “printing plates” using sumi ink or ink cakes which are a type of solid ink usually used for calligraphy and brush painting.

It is said that samurai would decide on the winner of fishing competitions using gyotaku prints. This traditional form used as a recording method for fishermen is still observed today and can even be seen in tackle shops across Japan.

Gyotaku art work, Japan.

Gyotaku art work, Japan. | Nora Gomez-Strauss

Over time, as gyotaku evolved into an art form, it adapted three different approaches:

Methods of gyotaku

Chokusetsu-ho

Chokusetsu-ho, otherwise known as the direct method, is the closest to how gyotaku was done in its purest form. The fish is cleaned, prepared, supported and finally inked. Damp rice paper or washi is then applied to the fish, then slowly and carefully pressing the fish to create an image.

Tensha-ho

Tensha-ho is not a popular as the other two methods of gyoyaku. The method was developed when the objective of the printing process was to create an image on a hard surface such as leather or wood, or in instances where it is not possible to apply the inked subject onto the chosen surface. The subject in this technique is prepped and inked as in the chokusetsu-ho method. The image is taken from the inked subject after it is pressed onto a piece of polyethylene or nylon. The transfer film is then lifted, placed then pressed on the chosen final surface. The final image in tensha-ho, unlike in the direct method, is in a right-oriented impression.

Kansetsu-ho

Kansetsu-ho is a method that is also known as indirect printing. It is a more meticulous way of printing fish. The outcome produces a very detailed image.

Japanese fish print.

The style entails adhering silk, washi paper or any kind of fabric to the fish using rice paste.

Japanese fish print. | Matthew Bednarik

Once every intricate detail of the fish if formed onto the material. Ink is then painstakingly applied to the material, usually silk. Tampos, (applicators made of silk wrapped around cotton), is then used as a final step to the process.