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Dwight Hwang: Bringing Life To An Ancient Japanese Art Form

Photo by Andrew Hori. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang (Instagram: @fishingforgyotaku)

Most gyotaku prints are flat, but I’ve noticed your artwork has a lot of 3D-style life and movement to them. How do you give feeling and sensitivity to something that is essentially a dead animal?

Yes, there came a point where I tried to print a fish in a different perspective out of necessity. My favorite fish to print is the koi, but when printing it from the side, regular folks would only see it as a fish rather than the beautiful koi that I so enjoyed watching as a child. I realized that for people to recognize the koi fish as one of the ones that they would have also seen in a garden pond, I would have to print it at an angle that they were accustomed to seeing it from…from above. Once printing the koi from above, everyone immediately connected the image to the colorful fish in the ponds of Asian gardens. It wouldn’t matter if the details of the fish were absolutely perfect from the side of this fish. People would still not be able to recognize it. But from above, the image is then allowed to tap into memories and feelings.

Spotted Scorpionfish that was gifted to a Japanese marine biologist. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

Do you catch your “models” yourself? Where do you find your fish? Is there anything you look for in particular?

The vast majority of the fish I print are acquired directly from the commercial captains or from my fishmonger friends. Some of the more unique specimens come from marine biologists. As for personal catches, if it was an absolutely memorable day for my little boy, then we’ll bring it home to create a special family piece and then enjoy the fish as a meal.

Japanese Sturgeon. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

Tell us a little bit about you. Where did you grow up? What were you like as a kid?

I was born in Los Angeles, but spent years in many different cities including Tokyo, before settling back in Southern California once again. Since I was a child, all I ever cared to do was create art. Whether it be on paper, canvas, sidewalks, dirt ground, or on the narrow margins of my homework, art was frankly the only thing I knew how to do.

Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

I think I’m patient only when it comes to things that I have a great passion for. Hours and days can pass while I create something without taking any notice. My wife can move a heavy piece of furniture behind me while I’m focused on a project and I would have no idea until I felt that I needed a break. Performing a demonstration, the audience blurs out, and all I really hear is my own breathing. I’m not sure if I’d consider myself patient, but I do think I can be very persistent and focused.

Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

How were you introduced to gyotaku? What’s the significance of gyotaku? What does it mean for you to practice this traditional art form?

Aside from my love for the arts, I also have always loved fishing since I was a little boy. When I was working in Tokyo as a storyboard artist for cinema & anime, I would often go to the tackle shops and visit the fishmongers. On their walls would be gyotaku prints pinned all over. Sometimes, even on the ceilings. The majority of them were the very basic, traditional type of gyotaku done with sumi ink on paper. As rough as they were, I fell in love with them. There were times I would visit the shop only to stare up at the prints. Within a gyotaku print lay my passion for both art and fish. It seemed a perfect marriage for someone like me. But I think what I enjoy most about it now is how simple the tools and the process for gyotaku printing.

Bluefin Tuna harvested by a local spearfisherman. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

Much like many of Japan’s traditional arts, whether it be pruning leaves and twigs off of a miniature tree or glazing a small teacup, the technique may appear simple but there is so much room for refinement and years can be spent in perfecting one’s process.

How long have you been practicing gyotaku? Are you continually evolving and finding different ways to fine-tune your techniques? Tell us a little about that.

I first started in 2009 as a frustrating hobby and the results certainly showed this. I wanted to improve, but without any sort of instruction it was through a great deal of trial & error that would finally lead me to where I am now. And even now, my wish to keep improving hasn’t changed. It is an important lesson I have learned during my years in Japan. Not to try to create something perfect, but rather to strive to perfect my process.

Collection at the Four Seasons Sensei Lanai in Hawaii. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

How do you know if a gyotaku print has been done well?

I think most would naturally look towards the details that have transferred from the ink surface of the fish to the paper. That is one aspect that I look for in a piece. But what is most important to me is presence. The piece that I end up choosing could display less detail, accidental ink splotches or faint fingerprints, but if conveys a strong presence, it is this one that I will choose and scrap the others. Details are appealing to the eyes, there is no doubt about that. But it is the presence and life that I think will reach deeper and move our emotions.

A pair of hogfish. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

Are you coming up with your own animal creations (e.g. with gills, fins, tentacles from other species) or are you strictly sticking to the animal you’ve got in your hands in the moment?

The only time I’ve created something fantastical was when approaching human portrait prints where I would print the subject’s face and then recreate their hair and body with things from nature that would best represent the story that the subject wishes to tell.

Portrait titled “Dashed Wishes”. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

Which one of your works will forever have a place in your heart, or the one that you are most proud of?

“Celestial Koi”. Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

The piece entitled “Celestial Koi” is the one gyotaku piece that I am most proud of. It shows a koi fish leaping upwards towards a dragonfly, incorporating all the many techniques that I have discovered and learned all in one piece. Gyotaku is typically created from the flattest side of the fish. But you’ll see that this one is from an entirely different perspective, the fish is twisting, the dragonfly is real, the ink splatter controlled. This was a sort of personal milestone for me that I still continue to draw inspiration from to push further these core traditional techniques.

Can you tell us who some of your biggest clients/fans have been?

I have been blessed with some incredible clients. Patagonia had one of our earlier pieces grace the cover of one of their books. They also sent my family and I on a tour around North America to several of their stores to demonstrate and speak about the art. Four Seasons, Sensei Lanai purchased 27 original pieces to decorate one of their main hallways. We have an article in an issue of Forbes Magazine. NOAA, Michelin Three Star restaurants, hospitality of all sorts, museums, seafood institutions, and a few celebrities such as Jeremy Wade (“River Monsters”) and Hazen Audel (“Primal Survivor”).

Memorializing a little boy’s pet goldfish (which he framed in his room). Courtesy of Dwight Hwang

What’s next for you? What’s next for gyotaku?

I wish to continue creating the portrait prints to tell important and personal stories of our community and society. I long to venture to places (Africa, Amazon, Southeast Asia, Antarctica) to convey the underwater stories found there. But most of all, I simply want to keep improving.

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Jana Meisenholder

Jana Meisenholder

Independent journalist focusing on culture, true crime, and human interest stories. Editor @unearthedstories. Living in the US with a Vegemite accent.