Gyotaku Fish Print

A stamp made of real fish

This original work of art from a recent Beehive sale was created by Oregonian Timothy D. Buehler, who signed it in pencil. If you guessed that it’s a print, you’re right. And, if you guessed that it’s a painting, you’d also be right – the original print is finished with hand-painted elements. Its edition number is 1/1, so it’s a monoprint – the only one ever made.

This kind of printing is known as Gyotaku (魚 拓), a portmanteau word combining Gyo “fish” and Taku meaning “stone impression” or “print”. That’s right, this “Fish-Print” was made by printing directly on the paper with an ACTUAL DEAD FISH, not a carved print block.

The origins of Gyotaku are prosaic – the technique was invented in Japan in the late 19th century, (before cellphones put a camera in every pocket) when fishermen needed a quick, accurate way to document catches. Someone thought to rub one side of the fish with sumi ink, a traditional soot-based ink made by grinding burnt pine branches. Soft rice paper is then gently laid on the inked fish and rubbed. When the paper is lifted off, the life-size fish impression is easily identifiable. Last, the non-toxic, water-soluble ink is rinsed off the fish, which is then ready to be sold and eaten. The oldest known Gyotaku was made in 1862. It was of a red seabream, a culturally and culinarily important fish. The auspicious bream is eaten at New Years, weddings and on other grand occasions, so that fish was definitely not thrown away after printing!

In this modern work, the printer may have used the same fish three times to make this ‘school’. He created a life-like appearance with multiple inks on the fish and later painted in realistic eyes. The work is finished with hand-painted seaweed strands. It is possible to do leaf-prints of seaweed but bulbous float bladders on this type could make it difficult.

The fish is identified as a Rockfish, also known as rockcod, snapper, or sea bass. There are over 38 species in Oregon’s coastal waters including Black Rockfish, Blue, Bocaccio, Canary, Chilipepper, China, Copper, Deacon, Greenstriped, Redstripe, Silvergray, Quillback, Vermilion, Widow, and Yellowtail; many of which are hard to tell apart. Rockfish are good eating, but anglers must beware of their sharp, spiny fins. You should also know that Yelloweye rockfish is prohibited to keep and must immediately be thrown back, so, no printing the Yelloweyes!

Gyotaku has become fine art and three different methods are now used: Direct, (previously described), Indirect, in which silk fabric is adhered to the fish with rice paste and then ink is gently applied to the silk with tampos, small, stuffed cloth tampers. The most prominent features of the fish pick up the most ink, creating a highly detailed print. The last method, Transfer, is rare but allows a real fish print to be applied to a rigid surface such as wood. The fish is inked, then a polyethylene film is patted onto it and lifted off while the ink is still wet. The polyethylene is then immediately pressed onto the wood, transferring the print.

But fine art is not Gyotaku’s only use. The process takes careful observation and results in an accurate record so it’s become a fun way to teach fish identification at museums, universities and aquariums. The OSU Fisheries and Wildlife Club sometimes offers classes, and in 2021 The Gladys Valley Marine Studies Building at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport hosted a year-long exhibition. And Gyotaku is still used to record catches in Okinawa and Japan, where prints can sometimes be seen in tackle shops. Want to catch your own Gyotaku? Visit QBO!