Gyotaku - The Art of Fish Rubbing

Gyotaku, for Hawaii artist and fishing enthusiast, Naoki Hayashi, allows the perfect balance of love and work through this old Japanese technique of creating fish prints.

Combining two Japanese words, "gyo," meaning fish, and "taku," meaning rubbing, the technique originated more out of a means for fishermen to verify what they had caught in pre-camera Japan rather than an art form.

In the same context that fishermen of older Japan may have viewed the practice of gyotaku Hawaii's most well-known gyotaku artist, Naoki Hayashi, an avid fisherman and diver, often claims he's not an artist. However, his works speak everything to the contrary.

I first became aware of Naoki's works while perusing the booths at the Ko'olina Boat Show some four or five years ago. I was struck by a black t-shirt sporting a school of menpachi which although a painting captured so vividly the detail and ambiance of a scene I had experienced while diving a sunken barge off of Diamond Head.

That first experience with Naoki's work would be greatly augmented over the next few years as my new awareness of gyotaku made me notice the art form in galleries, publications, and even kids learning to create their own "fish rubbings."

I had long thought about doing something about gyotaku on the website but a couple of conversations with friends who had gyotaku done by Naoki of their prized catches prompted me to get in touch with this local artist I'd only known through prints I'd seen in galleries, magazines, and television features.

Arriving at Naoki's Windward Oahu studio, Laura (my younger daughter) and I discovered a humble worksite nestled amidst the warehouses that comprised this light industrial area in Kaneohe. A couple of the all-familiar insulated fish bags out in front gave clue that this was a place that saw fish on a regular basis -- almost like a fish market!

Gyotaku, in simplest terms, begins with the application of paint on to the subject fish...

followed by placing rice paper over the fish and "rubbing" it to create an imprint of the fish on the paper...

then removing the paper which now bears striking accuracy in the details and texture of the fish!

As we entered the back area through hanging strips of clear vinyl that separated the outer and inner areas, like the entry to a chill room, we were greeted by a plethora of prints and other objects -- surfboards, shirts, posters, lamps... all decorated with a variety of fish that would make any fishing or diving enthusiast stop and gaze in awe.

Naoki invited us into his workroom comprised of not much more than a large table similar to that which one would expect in a drafting environment or one where patterns are laid out to be cut. Here, seated at the table where fish were memorialized on the traditional rice paper medium, Naoki shared with us how gyotaku was the natural culmination of his love affair with the ocean that started when he was just a boy and a desire to express the joy he finds in it.

Naoki's gyotaku is born out of a lifelong love affair with the ocean which includes spearfishing, one of his favorite pastimes.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, Naoki moved to the Big Island at six years of age and quickly became fascinated with everything about the ocean. As a student at Hawaii Preparatory Academy where local sport fishing authority/author, Jim Rizutto, was a math instructor Naoki was fortunate enough to develop math skills along with Rizutto's own love and expertise of all types of island fishing.

Naoki went on to complete his college degree in chemistry prior to working as a diving instructor/guide for the next ten. Through his diving for work and recreation, he gained a knowledge and sense of the ocean and its inhabitants that only comes with prolonged exposure... a knowledge that would form the foundation for his prowess as a spearfisherman as well as making him the exceptional gyotaku artist he has come to be.

For the Hawaii-raised ocean lover, Naoki's approach to gyotaku is more than simply capturing the likeness of his subject.

In many of his works, one will see a particular scene reflective of the subject in its environment, like a predator in pursuit of baitfish... an octopus poised with head raised, legs searching... or a gamefish in true fighting form. And those who've seen the beauty of fish just pulled from the water before their colors faded can truly appreciate the "life" which Naoki is able to restore to his subjects due to the many images ingrained in his mind through countless hours amidst the ocean life forms that attract and awe so many of us.

Like many of today's breed of Hawaii fishermen, Naoki is a conservationist while possessing an appetite for ocean table fare common to all of the cultures comprising Hawaii's people. He delights in the fact that all of his subjects are consumed and not discarded after the gyotaku is made and shares with a growing number of Hawaii spearfishermen (and women!) a practice of selective and only-what-you-need catching of fish. His concern for mortally wounding fish that might be marginally speared and escape only to die, has resulted in priding himself not on how far from which he can hit his target but instead how close he can get before pulling his trigger. And depending upon the type of fish that he's pursuing, watching Naoki is to see a mimicking of fish behavior... the throwing of sand from the bottom to attract fish to potential food... or using palu or chum to imitate a decaying fish that others will investigate.

Naoki's love and experience in and around the ocean enables him to relate to all fishermen bringing their trophies to be imprinted on rice paper and it is not surprising that behind every print coming out of Naoki's studio is an even bigger story, a story to which every one of us who pursue any form of fishing can relate.

Visit Naoki's website,, and be ready for an art form you'll definitely love!

"All images are copyrighted by Catch of the Day, Gyotaku by Naoki"

Return to Hawaii Artists