The life, work and love of a gyotaku artist
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Preserving a traditional Japanese art can sometimes be a daunting task. In our electronics-obsessed and internet-connected society, the patience required to perfect a traditional Japanese art is often lost in our “one-click” world and it is difficult to find craftspeople who are up to the job.
Desmond Katsutarö Thain is a refreshing exception. The 38-year-old Kaua‘i resident has patiently studied and perfected the art of gyotaku, Japanese fish printing, and has also taken it to a new level with his own artistic innovations while preserving the ancient techniques. And his gyotaku artwork is only one way that Thain reaches out and positively affects his community.
When asked how he became interested in gyotaku, Thain explained that he was introduced to fishing at an early age. His interest in ocean life eventually brought him to spearfishing, which he started practicing as a 10 year old. When talking with his spearfishing friends, he learned about gyotaku, a printing art developed over 100 years ago by Japanese fishermen to memorialize their catch, a task that can be accomplished in one click by a cell-phone camera today.
At age 24, Thain caught the prize catch of his young lifetime, a large kumu (whitesaddle goatfish). Some of his friends encouraged him to gyotaku the fish, or to preserve it for eternity by printing it on paper. Thain then started looking into traditional gyotaku techniques and materials, purchasing sumi ink (traditional Japanese soot-based ink) and rice paper. Eventually, through trial-and-error, he was able to perfect his fish-printing techniques.
Very few people would have that type of patience, but Thain’s story is unlike that of others. Born in Honolulu to a Japanese mother and a father who served in the U.S. Marines, he moved frequently as a child and has lived in Japan for around 10 years total, first in the formative five or six years of his life, then again as a young adult when he lived with an aunt. He is fluent in Japanese, has studied kanji (Japanese characters) and maintains many other ties to Japanese culture.
Once he perfected the skills required for the “traditional” gyotaku, the artist in Thain started experimenting with other media and inks. He now adds detail and color with other paints to develop what he calls a photo-realism style of gyotaku, to create prints that look so real and three-dimensional that it appears the subject is just about to jump off the canvas.
To develop this style, he started using heavier-bodied inks for the initial impression so he could add detail to his work without damaging the original print (traditional gyotaku uses the soot-based sumi ink, which might smudge when touched). In his many creative variations, Thain emphasizes that his gyotaku works are actual traditional fish prints. In fact, his enhanced artwork sometimes looks so real, he has to assure people that the piece is an actual fish print and not just a drawing. He stresses the importance in his work of maintaining the traditional Japanese techniques, while using his own artistic talent to innovate and create new art.
This emphasis on tradition has allowed him to become a successful artist on Kaua‘i, the island he has called home for the past few years. Local fishermen will call him to memorialize their prized catches, while others will see his art hanging in a gallery and purchase his work. Thain offers both the traditional style of gyotaku and the photo-realistic style printed on various media.
Besides being a successful artist, Thain reaches out to the community in other ways. Trained in jiu-jitsu since the age of twelve, he learned a judö-style of jiu-jitsu, which emphasized ne-waza (ground) and self-defense techniques. He earned his black belt from a jiu-jitsu studio in Honolulu and now continues his training with Kaua‘i-based instructor Pono Pananganan at two local studios – one at the Hui Alu clubhouse in Kapa‘a and another in Lïhu‘e – often assisting Pananganan in training others.
When starting a career in art, many artists find another job to supplement their income and provide health care and other benefits. A few years ago, Thain decided to pursue a civil service job, a job in the fire department, as an emergency medical technician or the Kaua‘i Police Department would best allow him to serve the community. He applied to and was accepted by the Kaua‘i Police Department. He graduated from the academy in 2020, a co-recipient of the Physical Fitness Award for his class, and now serves as a police officer for KPD.
Law enforcement can often be a stressful job, but Thain balances this stress with the positive feelings his service can bring. Thain feels the most important thing about his job is to make a difference and positively impact people’s lives. He accomplishes this in multiple ways, whether it be talking to kids and giving out stickers at Kapa‘a low-income housing, encouraging them to join sports or other healthy activities or talking to a person he just arrested – possibly going through a low point in their life – and encouraging them to make a change so they can experience a better future.
Thain is able to combine his training in martial arts with his passion for serving the community. When detaining a suspect, he always uses the gentle techniques learned from jiu-jitsu – translated to English as “the gentle art,” he explained – rather than the more heavy-handed techniques taught in the academy. He tries to use the most generous techniques possible to avoid injury to any suspect.
While pursuing his many passions, Thain also shares that the most important thing in his life is his family. He recently became a father; he is a proud parent to a two-month-old son who keeps him very busy. He counts his girlfriend and his son as his inspiration for his police and community work.
Being grounded in traditional Japanese values has helped Desmond Katsutarö Thain balance his passions of gyotaku display art, jiu-jitsu martial arts and civil service at KPD. He hopes to pass these values on to his young son and others in the community to help ensure a great future for the next generations.
For more information about Desmond Thain’s Gyotaku journey and to see samples of his art, please visit desmondthainfineart.com.
Carolyn (Kubota) Morinishi resides in Kapa‘a with her husband Ron and her mother, Marian Kurasaki Kubota. They live together on the site where Marian was raised. Morinishi, a former software engineer, and Marian are the talents behind the Herald’s monthly Culture4Kids! column. Morinishi is also involved in Japanese cultural arts. In addition to her academic degrees, she holds natori (master) and shihan (master instructor) degrees in Nihon buyö at the Azuma School in Tökyö, and was given the dance name Kikusue Azuma. She continues to teach dance on Kaua‘i and in Los Angeles.