Ancient Japanese Secret

In the days before smart phones or even pocket cameras, Japanese fishermen used to keep paper and ink on their boats so they could document trophy catches by making rubbings of them. After washing the ink off, they could eat the fish and prove that it had existed.

Eventually the practice evolved into an art form called gyotaku (gyo “fish” + taku “rubbing”) and the fish prints were embellished with other media, or made from molds instead of the actual fish.

As soon as I learned about gyotaku I was desperate to try it. The only problem was that I couldn’t quite bring myself to look at, let alone touch, a dead fish.

But my husband is an avid fisherman and lover of Japanese printmaking. He graciously offered to bring home a fish so we could make a fish rubbing together (romantic!). And by “together,” I mean that I supplied the paper and ink and watched with one eye open as the P-Dawg did the rubbing. The process we used is very simple:

  1. Pat the fish thoroughly dry with a rag or paper towel.
  2. Rub a thin layer of ink over it (the P-Dawg used his bare hands but you could also probably use a brush).
  3. Put a piece of paper over the inked fish and press it down around the fish so that the whole surface of the fish comes into contact with the paper.

I would advise you not to rub too vigorously because when the P-Dawg was making this gyotaku, a very small amount of fish guts leaked out and got stuck to the paper. I had to Photoshop them out.

For our first gyotaku, I think it turned out pretty well. Next time, perhaps a slightly thinner layer of ink would bring out some more detail.

the fish print_edited-1

(The P-Dawg wants you to know that his fish rubbing is not yet complete, as he plans to embellish it with a golden eyeball. He also wants you to know that he doesn’t consider this fish a “trophy” catch.)

Here’s what we used:

  • One small perch from LaDue Reservoir in Geauga, Ohio
  • Sumi ink
  • Japanese kozo paper (because it’s lightweight but very durable, so it molds easily to the fish
fish1_edited-1

The Fish

the ink_edited-1

The Ink

inking the fish_edited-1

The Inking

gyotaku with guts

The Print (Unedited)

I didn’t get a good photo of the rubbing process, but basically you place a piece of paper over the fish and . . . rub it.

(This post was cross-posted on my other blog, here.)

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