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Food as Art: Fish Printing

Debra Redalia


Red Snapper Gyotaku Ocean Offerings


Gyotaku is a traditional form of Japanese art that began over 100 years ago as a way for fishermen to keep a record of the fish they caught. They would apply sumi ink to one side of a freshly caught fish, then cover the fish with rice paper and rub to create an exact image of the fish. The ink was non-toxic and allowed for the fish to be processed for eating, while preserving records of fish species and sizes.
These utilitarian prints were incredibly life like. When done properly they retained even subtle patterns and textures of the fish. The relatively simple black ink prints later developed into an art form that added rich colors and environmental details.
SMITHSONIAN: Education Uses of Gyotaku or Fish Printing

Last week while Larry and i were off on a trip celebrating his birthday, I came across a beautiful book on fish printing in a state park bookstore.

A Life Among Fishes: The Art of Gyotaku captured my heart. It explores the lifelong passion of fisheries by scientist and artist Christopher M. Dewees, featuring over 100 of his Japanese fish prints since 1969. The book presents his half-century of printing fish and shellfish to full color. Many are linked to stories about his journey, and history and information about the art form. In recent years Dewees now focuses more on writing stories and poems that are linked to his art.

I love that a practice that was once about documenting fish that had been caught evolved into an art form that now includes stories and poems as well.

I sometimes see fish prints at local craft fairs and always admire them.

If I ate fish, I would make fish prints of all the types of fish I ate and hang them on the wall in my kitchen, But—ah-ha!—I just realized I could do that with the plants and animals I eat, or even photographs or drawings.

While browsing this book, one sentence stood out for me. Dewees said [something like], “You should always eat the fish you print.” So of course, the traditional inks would not have been toxic or petroleum-based industrial inks, but rather inks from Nature.

Today we tend to eat food absent-mindedly, without considering the live plant or animal we are eating. With industrial food products we often can’t even tell what the original plant or animal was.

Gyotaku honors the connection between fish and human and honors the fish that feed us.