I was ten years old. Before following my classmates outside, I grabbed some sheets of white paper and a thick crayon—the homemade kind, comprised of old, leftover pieces of Crayola crayons, the colors swirled together, molded by cupcake wrappers. Outside, I pressed my paper against bark, leaves, bricks and chain-link fences, boldly rubbing my cupcake-shaped crayon over the surface. I was in art class, and we were told to experiment with textures.
Last weekend, at 25 years old, I took part in a similar type of printmaking process, only this time, instead of thick crayons and bark, I spread watered-down acrylic paint over dead fish.
I was participating in a one-day workshop at , a foreign-owned art studio offering classes, workshops and a shared studio space, located ten minutes from Itaewon station. We were creating gyotaku, a type of Japanese printmaking that literally means “fish rubbing.” Japanese fishermen created this technique in the mid-19th century as a way to record the size, shape and texture of their catches. Years later, the Japanese deemed gyotaku an art form, embracing the beauty of these natural fish rubbings.
On November 25th, around 1 PM, I settled into the cozy art studio among a spattering of expats and Koreans, exchanging my shoes for a pair of plaid slippers. Drawings, paintings and exhibition postcards covered the walls and doors, and sculpture heads, thick art books and containers of dry materials were scattered throughout the room. We sat on plastic stools around two large tables covered with newspaper.
After Mike, the owner of Jankura, demonstrated the process, we washed the fish to remove excess oils. In pairs, we poked and prodded at our fish with small balls of newspaper, stuffing bits underneath the fins, mouth and gills to allow for more texture. Once our fish was ready to be inked, my partner and I spread black paint over the surface with a thick paintbrush. After dabbing the fish with a paper towel to remove excess paint, we carefully laid a sheet of traditional Korean paper, hanji, over the blackened fish, gently rubbing the surface, careful not to poke into its eye or soft underbelly. After two hours of inking, rubbing, and repeating, I managed to pull six high-quality prints, highlighting the natural textures and features of three different types of fish.
Next, with small pieces of linoleum and a few carving tools, Mike demonstrated how to create a custom name stamp, essential in every East Asian’s household for validating important documents. We stamped the bottom of each print with sticky, red ink.
Lastly, we painted on our prints with Korean watercolors, experimenting with a vast array of techniques, including light washes, color bleeding, blending, and short, bold strokes. As a final touch, I added some extra lines with a fine-tip black pen. With the added watercolor and pen, our prints evolved from the standard rubbing to portray each artist’s unique style. The only thing that the workshop lacked was a short reflection, where we could comment on each artist’s approach to the project.
After hanging our colorful prints on a multi-leveled clothesline strung across one of the walls, we fried our subjects, eating them with a bowl of rice and shot of sake. And no, we didn’t die; all materials applied to the fish were non-toxic.
“Who would have thought an American would be teaching a Japanese fish printing technique in Korea,” Mike stated as we cleaned up our materials. Although I spent four years in art school, I never once used a dead fish as a printing template, but I thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with it. The technique was relatively simple, encompassing a range of materials, and a process that anyone can enjoy, regardless of their age or artistic ability. I was thrilled with the final images, and as a bonus, I now have six unique, handmade Christmas presents ready to be shipped to the States.
Due to the interest and enthusiasm for this workshop, Jankura will probably host another Gyotaku workshop in the near future, lasting 5 hours and costing 60,000 won, including instruction and all materials.
Not interested in playing with dead fish? Check out some of Jankura Artspace’s other weekly classes and workshops on their website or , including silk dying, themed life drawing (such as gothic, crime scene, pregnant, belly dancing, etc.) monoprinting, and more.
*Note: This is NOT a sponsored post—I just really loved the workshop.
Sarah Shaw writes creative non-fiction, makes art, and blogs at Mapping Words, while teaching English at a public elementary school in Seoul. She’s also on Twitter .