(gyo- fish + taku- rubbing)


The Art of Traditional Japanese Fish Printing


Dating from the mid-19th cent. this form of printing directly from nature was traditionally used by fishermen to record their catches immediately on the boats. Only rice paper and sumi ink was used and the print was made directly off the fish by inking its body. Each fisherman was able to then prove his quota of the catch by stamping the print with his personal chap or name identifying his fish. This wad of fishprints would then ensure payment for his catch as well as provide the boat owners etc with a type of business record.


Since moving from a practical counting device to an artform, gyotaku had certain elements that are important to preserving the dignity and naturalness of the fish. Firstly only fresh whole and undamaged fish may be used with no obvious sign of harm or struggle. The fins and scales etc all intact. It is then positioned in a natural way with hidden threads to open the fins, mouth and tail, to display the fish in its most “alive” looking form.


The whole body is then inked with sumi ink which is ground on a stone from sumi sticks and provides a beautiful rich charcoal black. I however use ordinary ink for the fish that we eat. The eye of the fish is wiped clean prior to printing to allow a blank eye to print. The pupil is the only part of the print that may be “touched-up” afterwards with a small brush. Traditionally the fisherman or artist would then stamp their personal chap in red sumi ink, always behind the fish’s tail symbolizing its spirit unblocked passage to swim on eternally.


I have started using Japanese paper called “washi”paper, which is entirely made by hand using traditional methods. Families or villages will make a type of paper and become known as the area in particular for producing that type of washi. The inner bark of plants are used producing kozo, paper mulberry, gampi and mitsumata. These long fibres, when intertwined give these papers their great wet strength and flexibility. Many of them have 4 deckle edges due to each sheet being individually made and the smoothness of the paper which is unsized picks up the details of the fish’s body with precision and integrity. Recently I have used usu kuchi light, kitikata, gozen, mulberry and sekishu banshi tsuru.