In Partnership with the Southern Weekend

Artist Desmond Thain on the Japanese art of Gyotaku

A practice that's more than just art

What began as a traditional means of recording a fisherman’s catch in Japan, gyotaku has evolved into a fine art form practiced by many artists around the world. HI Now host Kanoe Gibson is catching up with one of Hawaii’s most talented gyotaku artists Desmond Thain.

Gyotaku in Japanese translates to “fish rubbing” or “fish print” and was primarily used in the 1800s to record the size, location and general shape of the fish. It was created by placing rice paper or washi paper over the fish that has been lightly brushed with a special black ink. Over the years, the technique has been refined and artists now add color and finer detailing to reflect their artistic expression.

Desmond Thain always had an interest in art, and as an avid spear fisherman, gyotaku prints caught his eye early in his career.

“I just initially thought at the time that is was this rudimentary fish drawing,” said Thain.

Thain’s catches were his first prints, and he later evolved by sourcing larger fish from fisherman friends. Recently he’s started to explore other subjects like inoshishitaku (pig print) and toritaku (bird print), using wild boar and wild chickens caught by hunters in Kauai.

For Thain, gyotaku is more than just an art.

“There’s a huge story behind it. The place, the people involved, and what it took to attain this piece of art,” said Thain.

He believes gyotaku is a full circle, from the harvest to the art to the feast. Following Native Hawaiian values, Thain believes homage and respect should given to the catch by ensuring future generations are also able to receive.

“The art is the epitome of respect to the fish because it’s not just another fish in the cooler that’s sold at an auction block. The entire fish has been preserved and given the utmost respect by being displayed as a center piece in the house,” said Thain.

But his favorite part may easily be the feast, where family and friends are able to gather and fellowship over food. To him, this is what puts a smile on faces and brings back togetherness and unity.

Thain’s artwork can be found at most Pictures Plus stores on Oahu and Wy’s Gallery in Haleiwa. He also holds workshops to teach the art of gyotaku at Pictures Plus.

For more information, follow Thain on Instagram: @dwezz75