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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Art of Fish Rubbing Lands in Costa Rica

Like any good artist, Mya DeRyan likes to get up close and personal with her subjects and understand what makes them tick, their inner beauty, long before the ink ever hits the canvas.

The difference between DeRyan, and, say, Picasso, is that DeRyan, a recent transplant to Costa Rica from the Canadian province of British Columbia, prefers to catch her subjects on hook and line, or at least buy them at the local pescadería, or fish market.

“Some women say, ‘Ooh, look at the diamonds.’ I say, ‘Ooh, look at the fish,’” she said.

DeRyan’s art, which she calls “fish rubbing,” or gyotaku, as it is known in Japan, originated in the 1700s as a form of preserving bragging rights after a fisherman landed a trophy catch. The rubbings are made by first preparing the fish – laying it out, splaying the fins – then dousing its length and width with ink.

After that, DeRyan presses mulberry paper, a silk sheet, or almost any other medium to the inked body of the fish, creating an impression that is uncannily realistic, portraying every single scale, fin and contour of the fish.

“It offers people an opportunity to appreciate the magnificence of fish – underwater creatures we rarely get to experience in such detail,” she said.

The art is easier to appreciate than to practice, said DeRyan, who points out the difficulties of transferring a once-living fish to paper. “You’re taking a three-dimensional object with curves and trying to make it work in two dimensions,” she said.

And “dousing” isn’t quite the right word, either, she added, explaining that just the right amount of ink must be applied to the fish to ensure a perfect impression.

Too much, she said, and the fine features she prides herself on are lost in smudge. Too little, and details are lost to blank spots.

“It takes patience, practice and a love of fish,” she said.

Fish Tales

A lifelong lover of fish, DeRyan is an artist, a fisherwoman and a mother who, after a series of life-changing events back home, decided to drop everything and come to Costa Rica.

“I read somewhere it was the second most popular sportfishing destination in the world. That sounded perfect,” she said.

She learned fish rubbing back at home, in her native Canada, beginning with freshwater fish such as cutthroat and rainbow trout.

She met a fishing guide, started an art gallery, and soon her artwork developed into a passion.

When she got off the plane in San José, she came with a half-dozen bags, nearly overflowing with ink, paper and other tools of the trade, she spoke little Spanish, had no idea where to go and nearly got robbed.

She wound up in the southern Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo, where, in a broken-English conversation with local fishermen, she first heard about the OsaPeninsula, on the other side of the country on the southern Pacific coast.

“The fishermen I met on the Caribbean told me I had to go to the Osa,” she said.

Not 15 minutes after her arrival in Golfito, on the OsaPeninsula’s Golfo Dulce, she was standing on the docks at Samoa del Sur lodge with her first subject, a six-foot marlin, fresh from the azure Pacific.

“I knew I’d come to the right place,” she said.

According to Claude Galvez, who helped set DeRyan up with a place to stay and her first “impromptu” studio at Samoa del Sur, fishermen can’t get enough of her work.

“It’s so unique; it’s really a thing of beauty,” said Galvez, who now has one print of every fish DeRyan has inked since arriving in Costa Rica.

A New Form of Art

On a recent trip from the wilds of the Osa to San José to secure new supplies, DeRyan stopped by the office of The Tico Times to show off her work, most of it rolled up securely in a tube that looked suspiciously like a fishing rod holder.

As she unscrewed the tube, a stench wafted over The Tico Times’ parking area – a blend of fresh fish on the dock and dank, salty air, trapped in transit after the long journey from Golfito.

She unraveled the nearly six-foot-long sheet she had wrapped inside, and the beautiful impression of a blue marlin emerged, its grandeur captured in two dimensions and beautiful, vivid color, as though the fish were still alive at sea.

“If I had a crown jewel, this would be it,” she said, beaming with pride.

Though original gyotaku were simple black-and-white impressions, DeRyan uses paint, pastels and a variety of other media blended together to achieve an almost surreally realistic effect with her rubbings.

DeRyan’s work sells for between $100 for a print of a smaller fish, such as a palm-sized trout, and as much as $1,000 for larger fish, such as the marlin.

Her other examples – a corvina, dorado, jack crevalle, skipjack tuna, parrotfish, and flounder – were all Golfo Dulce fish she was given, or caught herself.

DeRyan said she hopes to teach others the art, which she feels translates seamlessly to Costa Rican culture.

“The people are so tied to the sea, and fish,” she said. “It feels like a good match.” In the meantime, she continues to solicit fish from fishermen who visit the country on vacation, catch a trophy and then turn to her to make the memory permanent.

“It’s wife-approved trophy art,” she said. While times have changed since 1700, when gyotaku first emerged as a folk art, fishermen have not, DeRyan said.

“They love to show off their catches,” she said, adding that she hopes her art will allow them to keep at it – at least, to a point.

“A fisherman may exaggerate, but a fish rubbing never does,” she said with a smile.

To find out more about DeRyan’s fish rubbings, visit or email her at



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