Gyotaku: A Fascinating Angler’s Art Form

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A painted gyotaku impression of a bluefin tuna.

I’ve been fortunate to help out local Salem artist and angler Joe Higgins in his North Shore shop, Tomo’s Tackle this past year, and every time I’m in the shop, I can’t help but think: More people need to know about this beautiful artwork.

Higgins practices an ancient Japanese art form known as gyotaku, where he takes a recently caught fish, places a special type of ink on it, and creates an impression on rice paper. On many, he paints in detail to finish the impression and make it as lifelike as possible.

I don’t speak Japanese, but research suggests that the word ‘gyotaku’ translates literally to something like ‘Fish Reclamation.’ Records show that this art form dates at least back to the 7th century and is probably much older than that.

Before anglers had cameras to capture and share the story of a catch, they had to be slightly more creative. By placing ink on the fish and carefully pressing paper over it, they were able to create a lasting impression to remember their catch after it had been sold or eaten.

Higgins has given this ancient art a new life, and he creates and sells “fish prints” out of Tomo’s Tackle in Salem. His prints are on display and sold in various places throughout Massachusetts, and you can find more information about seeing and perhaps purchasing some prints near you on his site. 

The stunning and memorable thing about a gyotaku print is how it almost brings the fish back to life in front of your eyes. With each carefully added detail, Higgins creates an image that is in many ways is more beautiful, alive and unique than a picture of the same fish might be.

Higgins has printed everything from squid to swordfish, and he’s seemingly up for any challenge. I’ve seen prints of false albacore, flounder and even a few redfish come through the shop, and each is fascinating in its own right.

It’s a constant reminder that as fishermen, we’re exposed to more beauty than most, and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.

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