After gently placing the rockfish onto the table, Dwight Hwang paints the top layer of fish with a light layer of onyx Japanese sumi ink. Next, he carefully presses a delicate sheet of washi (mulberry paper) over the fish’s scaly surface to make a print in a video for Positively Groundfish, a nonprofit educating consumers about West Coast fisheries.
“It’s essentially the Japanese version of taxidermy,” says Hwang, a Korean American artist and fluent Japanese speaker, about the Japanese art form of gyotaku — “fish rubbing” in Japanese — a way that local fishermen would commemorate their catches before eating the fish. “Photography was limited, and this 19th-century practice is a faithfully recorded document.”
The art form is simple but difficult to master. First, paint one side of the fish with sumi ink, place washi paper atop, then use your fingers to press over the surface to make a print. Hwang sticks to three traditional ingredients to remain faithful to the classical technique he’s lovingly borrowed from another culture: “the ink, the paper, and the fish.” He restricts himself from fixing mistakes or adding embellishments besides painting in the eye. His deceased fish models are mostly sourced from fishmongers and commercial captains such as Rex Ito at Primetime Seafood and Tommy Gomes.
His marine-focused art has gained fans among restaurateurs, art collectors and hotels such as the Four Seasons Sensei Lanai in Hawaii and Wynn Las Vegas. Through his work, he shares his passion for the sea and highlights the Japanese cultural love and admiration for simple, fleeting pleasures while sparking conversations about the vulnerability of marine life due to human interference and our changing oceans.
“I love anything fish related; it’s how I’m wired,” says Hwang. During a seven-year stint in Tokyo as a film storyboard artist, he was excited to discover gyotaku prints displayed in sushi restaurants and tackle shops. He became obsessed with the art form, learning techniques in his free time from YouTube videos. “It took about three years for me to finally get something that looked like a fish,” he said. “That’s when it started to get exciting.”
Finding this new passion made him realize that, after working for more than 20 years in the movie industry, he was burned out and rarely saw his kid. After his wife, Hazel Hwang, persuaded him to pursue gyotaku as a career, his first client was Patagonia, which purchased his “Trout Leaping Towards Dragonfly” piece for the book cover of “Simple Fly Fishing” in 2018.
Hwang’s naturalistic artwork reminds the fly-fishing reader to be more “mindful that fishing isn’t possible without a healthy river system,” says Karla Olson, books publisher at Patagonia. “We want readers to recognize the need to protect the places where they play — many of which are under threat.”
That first piece led to a multicity tour teaching gyotaku workshops at Patagonia stores, exposing new audiences to the art form. In Toronto, Hwang collaborated with local marine biologists and activists to highlight an epidemic of “salmon milking,” in which migrating female salmon are killed for their eggs. “I saw pictures of salmon carcasses with bellies ripped open, littering local riverbanks, parks and trails. Patagonia wanted us to print one of these desecrated salmon in front of an audience,” says Hwang.
That salmon was tough to print, with bloody exposed wounds and guts. With the help of his wife, he printed the fish from a bottom-angled perspective to highlight the cut belly, which is more complex than the traditional technique of printing the flattest side of the fish. The resulting piece is haunting, the delicate black and white fish deformed with jarring splotches of dangling brown guts.
Other times, his art is more uplifting, as with a print of California’s critically endangered giant sea bass.
“The artwork starts a wonderful dialogue, not only because of its endangered status but for the excellent conservation work,” says Hwang.
That conservation work has helped giant sea bass numbers rebound so much since 2004, when they were first listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, that some marine researchers have recommended reevaluating their status.
“I try to work with artists like Dwight who can translate our data in a way that’s accessible,” says Sarah L. Mesnick, ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division Fisheries, who collaborates with artists to create educational and outreach materials. “Scientists can tell you about sardines, anchovy and mackerel, but it’s just a long list of names and data. By coupling our scientific work with artists, we can transmit messages in a format the public finds fun and fascinating, so I see art as a bridge between science and the public.”
Hwang made a particularly visceral piece in collaboration with scientists in 2022 after a rare and monstrous angler fish washed up in Newport Beach. There are only about 30 specimens in collections worldwide, but this was the third time one had appeared on a beach in California in a couple of years.
“The fish is bizarre, both cute and demonic, and the texture feels like you’re dipping your hands into jello covered in cactus spines. It’s really weird, and printing it is particularly challenging; it’s as if the fish doesn’t want to be printed,” says Hwang.
His work was displayed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, inspiring discussion about why the anglerfish keeps washing up in California. “It also brings up the vast mysteries of the ocean and the world, reminding us that there is a larger world of organisms besides us,” says Hwang.
Besides the riddles of the ocean, Hwang’s work often hits closer to the heart, as when he and his wife went to La Jolla to print the eye of a deceased dolphin calf, which looks similar to a human eye.
At a Santa Barbara Maritime Museum exhibit featuring the eye print in 2019, Hwang observed visitors discussing the calf’s death. “Some mourned the baby dolphin, but plenty of folks related to the mother, who has to live with the memory of her baby’s death,” says Hwang.
Although his work is meant to remind viewers to value life’s fleeting moments, it’s also reoriented his own priorities.
“I’m my own boss and spend 24-7 with my wife and kid, a huge contrast from being on sets from 12 to 16 hours per day,” Hwang says.
His 10-year-old son Weston is also well-versed in gyotaku. “During public demos and workshops, he’s right next to me, helping out and advising,” Hwang says. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”