The Mokuhanga Revival: How Japanese Woodblock Printing is Going Global

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Mokuhanga illustration

Climbing a narrow staircase to the third floor of the Mokuhankan print shop in Asakusa takes me to a studio where a printmaker is at work. She is halfway through adding black outlines to a batch of 99 prints. The highly manual process of the art form she’s employing means that consistency takes time to master but, with her level of skill, each print is revealed as a perfect replica of the last. Her specially designed workstation is overflowing with handmade paper, various tools and bowls of brightly colored pigments. It’s a printer’s paradise. All of these materials are coming together to be used in a process known as woodblock printing, or mokuhanga. 

Wait, what is mokuhanga? 

Glad you asked. Mokuhanga is a traditional printing technique once used commercially in Japan to mass produce images such as Katsushika Hokusai’s famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The multi-step process begins with the carving of wooden blocks. Any areas of the image where color should not appear must be cut away from the block, resulting in something that looks like a wooden stamp. The artist then rubs color into the wood and presses the paper onto the surface which, when removed, reveals the carved image. Whilst the art has a rich history, it is now being recognized for having unique characteristics that are appealing to modern artists around the world. 

What’s in it for modern artists, though?

Well, mokuhanga is today being recognised as an accessible and environmentally friendly art form, meeting the needs of contemporary artists. Despite having a history that’s strongly connected to Japanese culture, mokuhanga’s future is appearing to be increasingly international, showing its potential to connect artists from around the world and offering exciting opportunities for cultural exchange. Having developed alongside publishing and not high art, mokuhanga is an unpretentious technique that invites us to not only create art but also reconnect with nature – two basic pleasures that are all too often missing from our modern lives.

So who’s using the art form overseas?

For one, printmaker Mara Cozzolino has been practicing mokuhanga from her art studio in northern Italy since 2011. Before discovering mokuhanga, Mara worked as an illustrator practicing another printing technique known as etching, however it became increasingly difficult for her to justify its use of toxic chemicals and the impact they were having on both the environment and her health. Whilst some etching artists have managed to make their work processes more sustainable, Mara decided to take the opportunity to switch to an altogether different technique. Her search for a more eco-friendly printing process is what led her to mokuhanga. Despite being unchanged for centuries, mokuhanga happens to be an environmentally-friendly, water-based printing process, requiring only simple materials and no toxic chemicals. As well as having the qualities Mara was searching for, mokuhanga’s harmonious relationship with the natural world provided her with a source of inspiration that has strongly influenced her work.

“Japanese Moons Willow” by Mara Cozzolino

How about contemporary artists in Tokyo?

Allow me to introduce Tokyo-based artist Mia O. Her first taste of mokuhanga came in the form of a Japanese ukiyo-e art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Inspired by the images on display, Mia looked into how they were made and was surprised to discover she wouldn’t need much to start practicing the technique herself. Most traditional printing methods ask for expensive and heavy equipment that the majority of people simply don’t have access to. Mokuhanga on the other hand uses just a small hand-held printing tool called a baren. This means mokuhanga artists can easily work from home or in multiple locations, as the printing tools are all small enough to be easily transported.

Confident in its potential, Mia began her journey with mokuhanga in 2003 by participating in a two-month residential course organised by MI-LAB (Mokuhanga Innovation Laboratory) where she was able to develop her skills. Whilst it was the independence and simplicity of mokuhanga that first captured her interest, Mia now loves the process for its natural characteristics and the high level of involvement needed during each step of the process. “With mokuhanga being such a manual process, I can’t help but feel a strong connection to each print as it’s pulled from the blocks. Every mark has been carved, inked and printed by hand – it is an entirely human creation with no mechanical or automated involvement whatsoever.” Mia now works as a full-time painter and printmaker, using both mediums in very different ways to express a continuous theme in her art – nature. “When I see ripples of water or reflections of a mountain in a river, I see patterns. All of the materials I use are friendly to nature and contain these patterns.”

Artwork by Mia O

Okay, so where can we try mokuhanga for ourselves in Tokyo?

Right, back to the print shop and studio I visited in Asakusa. Mokuhankan offers high quality prints for sale at affordable prices and has found huge popularity by offering introductory printing experiences. Visitors to the shop can take part in “print parties” in which pre-cut wooden blocks lay waiting to be inked and printed – no prior experience or equipment necessary. This is an ideal way for newcomers to experience some of the most important steps in the mokuhanga process. How the pigment is applied and the way in which the paper is pressed on the block introduces many variables that take time to master. These variables have a huge effect on the final print so, although using a pre-cut image, the final result will certainly have a personal touch. Note that their print parties have proved to be extremely popular so pre-booking via their website is highly recommended.

More information and bookings at mokuhankan.com/index.php


Illustrations by Eleanor Jane Hall

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