88 Years, One Print

Yesterday, I noticed someone sitting across from me at a café. On the front of their black hoodie, in simple white letters, it said: “Hokusai.” The name somehow rang a bell, and one Google later, I remembered: The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is an iconic woodblock print depicting three boats fighting against a towering wave, with a view of Mount Fuji far in the distance. It’s an image known all over the world.

The artist, Katsushika Hokusai, started painting when he was six, and he created over 30,000 pieces in his lifetime. Paintings, sketches, prints — you name it. Only when he turned 70, however, did he start a series of prints called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Each print in the series was painstakingly assembled by first making a drawing on paper, then gluing said paper to a wooden block, then carving out the drawing’s shape, then using said block for one of the elements of the final composition. It likely took at least seven blocks to create The Great Wave in all its colors. It was one of the latter prints in Hokusai’s series, and of course, the others demanded the same effort and attention to detail.

Hokusai was a popular and respected artist of his time, and when he finished The Great Wave off Kanagawa, it was quickly reproduced thousands of times. Of course, Hokusai didn’t stop there. He finished his series of 36 prints, and then he created some more.

Hokusai even returned to the subject of Mount Fuji when well into his 80s, publishing three volumes of illustrations for another One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, including a similar, now also iconic drawing called The Big Wave. In the colophon of the first book, Hokusai wrote:

All I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature. When I am eighty I shall have made still more progress. At ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At one hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am one-hundred-ten, everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive.

Hokusai died at the age of 88 in 1849. Just shy of “penetrating the mystery of things.” To most of us, 175 years later, all that remains is one print. One image. One iconic picture, etched into our minds and the minds of generations to come.

88 years, 30,000 pieces, one print to be remembered. Such are the laws of the universe. Somehow, that doesn’t strike me as a sad dynamic. I think it makes for a rather epic story. Don’t you? And Hokusai knew it too, it seems. “Forget the stuff I made before 70. This is where the fun begins!” Perhaps he had already penetrated the mystery of things after all.

Walk the path. Keep living. Connecting. Creating. What happens after you depart is up to us, but today? Today is a great day to make another print.