For the Love of the Sea


Naoki Hayashi | Gyotaku Artist

Inspired by details he witnessed underwater, his love of nature and his passion to understand and protect it, Naoki Hayashi creates incredible works that truly capture the spirit of the ocean and its creatures.

Naoki is a world-renowned master of Gyotaku, an art that produces imprints of fish through the method of rubbing. Gyo means “fish” and taku is “rubbing.” This particular type of printing technique emerged in the 19th century in Japan as a means of documenting the daily catches of fishermen. The prints served as records of proof that a fisherman caught a particular species and/or size of the fish. Over time, it transformed into a beloved modern art, an educational tool and a type of scientific illustration.

At age 11, Naoki was first introduced to Gyotaku during a family camping trip down south on Hawai'i Island. A friend of his grandfather told him about how fishermen would use non-toxic ink, painted on a fish, which is then rubbed on rice paper and could still be eaten after being printed and washed. Naoki produced his print of a menpachi (a soldierfish also commonly known as ‘ū’ū) soon after and has continued ever since. At his Kāneʻohe studio on Oʻahu, Naoki has perfected his method, techniques and expertly adding colors that not only capture the special characteristics of the species, but also tell their stories without words. A purist, his practice descends directly from traditional Japanese fishing culture and most of the featured fish are food.

“I close my eyes and get into my zone. I cannot look at photographs and recreate what I see. When I close my eyes I see myself in the water again. My brain fills with underwater scenes. Since I was 10, I have been skin diving, freediving and spearfishing. Through the lens of my mask, the ocean is like my backyard. I get much closer to the underwater world when I close my eyes,” Naoki told Hook and Net Magazine. “I add colors depending on how I picture the fish in the water. My work doesn’t depict how fish look when they have been caught, hooked or placed on the deck of someone’s boat. It’s based on fish swimming in their natural environment.” 

Naoki knows his subject matter, the ocean, extensively because he spends many hours observing the intricate details while diving and spearfishing. In this way and through other amazing efforts, he has helped set a standard for the next generations of Gyotaku artists and admirers. His work is often used at schools, where keiki (children) are learning lessons about conservation, sustainability and stewardship. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, contacts Naoki to document unknown specimens found during its research expeditions. He collaborated with Western Aloha and other Hawaii clothing designers to share his art.

“I have admired and respected Naoki for decades as an accomplished artist perfecting his craft of Gyotaku. I am equally impressed with who he is as a human being,” said Western Aloha Art Director Dale Hope. He evokes a genuine passion for his craft with high standards as to how he portrays each dot of ink on his specially crafted rice paper, his canvas for the traditional Japanese art form.”

Q&A With Naoki

Q: When & how did your love for the ocean begin?

A: When I first touched water at age of 6, I learned how to hold breath underwater before learning how to swim.

Q: Why do you think this craft from the mid-1800s is still alive and well today?

A: I think it's partly due to the simplicity and purity of the practice to document life's experience in accurate form to show the success of fishers, and to preserve the story.

Q: What is the most memorable gyotaku print you’ve ever made?

A: My most memorable impression is of the "ONO" head print, just the head because I shared the only fish we landed on the outing with my crew before we parted. This is the biggest "ONO" I speared while free diving.

Q: How long does it take you to make a typical print?

A: There is no "typical" print when it comes to my gyotaku practice. I print what nature provides, so there's numerous factors involved in the entire process. my objective is to capture the image as is, so the image can hold the "actual" story which can be enjoyed by the rest

Q: What was the artistic process behind the Ulua print for Western Aloha?

A: As always, I learn as much from the subject and try to capture the individual’s unique character to tell the story.

Q: What excites you the most about starting a new gyotaku print?

A: The new story.

Q: What are the different mediums you have experimented with?

A: Everything you can think of.

Q: Besides gyotaku printing, what is your favorite form of art?

A: Sketch, paint, photography, pottery, woodwork, choreography,  cooking, or anything I can express my feelings and thoughts.

Q: Tell us a little about the process of creating your latest print for Western Aloha, “Keoni’s Catch”

A: First is to listen to the angler’s story in order to tune my mind into his lucky experience. And then, imagine what he went through in order to capture his story as accurately as I can on a clean sheet of shoji paper by means of this classic form of practice known as gyotaku.

Q: If you weren’t a gyotaku master, what would you be the master of?

A: To me, “master” is just a fancy word to describe a person who is willing to show value as an individual based on his or her character without hesitation or uncertainty.