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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1996

Scaling the heights of fashion

You won't need to fish for compliments when you're clad in a gyotaku of your own design. Try this ancient fabric-printing technique on for size at this year's Wisconsin State Fair.

Maureen Mecozzi

Come to the fair! Be dazzled by prize boars, be charmed by a junior sheep judging, be thrilled by a hair-raising, stomach-inverting midway ride! And go home with fish gyotaku on your shirt!

Excuse me? A splotch of barbeque sauce, a dribble of root beer float, grease from a corn dog – yes, all these remnants of a successful day at the 1996 Wisconsin State Fair can be spotted on the clothing of people touring the West Allis fairgrounds from August 1 – 11. But what's this new fish dish?

Call it wearable art or call it wearable food: The folks with fish on their collars will be those who have visited the Department of Natural Resources' State Fair exhibit, where they experimented with gyotaku, the ancient Japanese art of printing fish on fabric.

More than two centuries ago, Japanese fishermen began making "fish rubbings" to record their catch. Over the years the process evolved from an accounting method into an art form. This simple printing technique produces images of remarkable accuracy and beauty; small details, down to the individual scales, will come through in the print.

In the green, shady oasis of the DNR fair exhibit, visitors will find an open-air tent lined with rows of long tables covered with newspapers...and fish. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, the friendly members of the Retired Senior Volunteers organization will guide gyotaku novices in proper fish-printing techniques.

T-shirts of any size, from infant to adult, can be purchased at the fish printing booth for $4. "It's the best deal at the fair!" says Theresa Stabo, DNR fisheries educator. Or, you can bring your own T-shirts (or tablecloths, scarves, diapers, napkins, aprons, boxer shorts, etc.) and print for free. You'll get the best results if the fabric is smooth, can be machine washed and is a solid color.

Fish printing is a very popular activity, so you may have to wait a while before you can step up to the tables and print. Why not tour the full DNR exhibit before making your prints? This year, the exhibit will focus on the Great Lakes. Perhaps you'll find inspiration for your gyotaku in the displays on Great Lakes fish species, water quality, shoreline management and more.

Wearing a carp on your sleeve

It's not necessary to visit the State Fair to try gyotaku, though you'll be missing a great time – and those fabulous cream puffs over at the Wisconsin Dairy Bakers stand for $1.50 apiece. Gyotaku prints can easily be made at home, with just a few simple items. These instructions have been adapted from an article by Nancy Pagh, Alaska Fish & Game, Nov/Dec 1987.

Gather together all the necessary equipment before you begin printing. Here's what you'll need:

  • water-soluble block printing ink (easiest to work with because it does not run and dries slowly), textile silk-screening ink, India ink, or tempera. Dark colors give the best effect. If you plan to eat your fish after printing, be sure the paint you use is non-toxic.
  • cotton T-shirt (or whatever you want to print). 100 percent cotton works best, but you can also use blends of 50% cotton, 50% polyester.
  • a fresh, flat fish with scales intact
  • paint brushes (No. 8 or -size)
  • rice paper or blank newsprint
  • newspaper
  • modeling clay
  • straight pins
  • paper towels
  • an iron

Prepare the fish by washing it well with biodegradable, non-toxic soap; to get a good print, you need to remove all of the dirt, grit, blood and protective slime. In traditional gyotaku the fish is printed whole and intact, but using a cleaned fish stuffed with paper towels also yields good results.

Rinse the fish and pat it dry with some paper toweling. Cover a table with several layers of newspaper and lay the fish down on the paper. Place pieces of modeling clay under the tail and fins to raise them up, making them level with the body. (If you neglect this step, your print will reveal a strange finless species!)

Place pieces of paper towel into the nostrils, gill slits and anus to prevent any liquid from leaking out onto your fabric, then arrange the fish as you want it to appear in the print. You can spread out the fins or shape the mouth as you like. Secure the position with pins stuck through the clay. Let the fish dry, then remove the pins; the fins will stay fanned out.

To make your gyotaku, slide pieces of paper towel under the fins and tail to cover the clay. Brush a thin coat of ink onto the fish from head to tail in one direction. Be sure to cover all the fins, the lips and the gill cover, but leave the eyes unpainted.

Remove the pieces of paper towel from under the fins and tail. With clean hands, carefully lay your cloth on top of the fish. Beginning at the head and moving down to the tail, rub your fingers flat over the surface of the fish, being careful not to fold or move the fabric. Any part you don't touch will be left out of the print.

Gently lift the cloth off the fish and set it aside to dry. When the ink has dried, you can use a very small brush to paint an eye in the "eye spot." Try placing a small white dot in the eye to make it look like a real fish eye.

When all the ink is good and dry, waterproof and set the design: Lay the fabric on an ironing board, cover the inked image with a clean plain piece of rice paper or newsprint, and iron over the image at a moderate temperature for two minutes. Or check your ink bottle – the manufacturer may have specific instructions for setting the ink. Gyotaku-printed fabrics can be washed normally after the ink is set.

Re-ink your fish and print again; you can print all day, if you can stand the smell! If you used non-toxic ink and made only a few prints, you can still eat your fish – wash it well, fillet it and cook it up.

Finding the right subject

You can use any kind of fish for gyotaku, but scaly fish like carp and bluegills print best, because the scales leave a distinct, recognizable pattern on the cloth. If your lucky lake has skunked you once again and you're left with an empty stringer, visit the local fish market, grocery store or pet shop for likely gyotaku prospects.

You needn't limit your adventures in gyotaku to fish. Bend tradition by making imprints of leaves or grasses. Or capture the texture of an oak or birch by inking a piece of bark taken from a fallen branch. Anything with a relatively flat surface will work: Ink up your toddler's hands and feet and the dog's paws, then turn them loose on a cotton sheet. Instant personalized bed linen!

Whatever subject you choose to print, gyotaku is a wonderful technique for capturing nature in art, for holding still the cherished moments of life, for creating a record of the world as you see it. Print and enjoy.

Associate EditorMaureen Mecozzi is sometimes seen in a gyotaku cotton dress created with the help of friendly carp from Dodge County's Crawfish River.