You know about “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” You may not know that you know. But everybody’s seen the image, and almost everybody remembers it. Even if they don’t know what it’s called, or who created it.
“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is a woodblock print by the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai. It depicts small boats climbing a huge storm wave off the Japanese prefecture of Kanagawa, while Mount Fuji lurks in the background. The crinkly, stylized sea foam is hard to forget, and tempting to copy. It resembles claws.
Artists constantly reprint “The Great Wave” in all sorts of media: even on t-shirts, where the design usually gets, um, modifications. Like a rubber ducky. When I saw the tee above, I just had to have it.
The Great Wave can be copied literally, as above, or used as inspiration. Below, the “surfing bus” on a t-shirt from my local transit district crests an unmistakeable Hokusai wave. Note the Japanese-style “rising sun” in the background. One of the bus drivers drew the design: pretty special for civil service.
Also from my local area, the Monterey Bay in Central California: this rather good tee for a local surf contest flips the HokusaI waves in the opposite direction and substitutes a California shoreline for Mount Fuji. Pacific Brown pelicans cruise overhead. Call it “The Awesome Wave Off Carmel.”
Sometimes people find a more direct meaning in “The Great Wave.” For example, you’ll find the patch below on a t-shirt from the U.S. Naval Oceanography Antisubmarine Warfare Center in Yokosuka, Japan. Yokosuka is in Kanegawa, where “The Great Wave” is set.
“The Great Wave” is exactly the metaphor that this outfit wants. It tracks American and foreign submarine activity in the waters of Pacific. Their website will not tell you exactly how they do that. About all that it’ll admit to is the publishing of weather reports.
And they see themselves as the Great Wave, predator of vessels. In place of the fishing boats in Hokusai’s original, note the trident sticking up out the water and impaling a submarine. It’s a very nerdy way of saying “We Rock!”
If you didn’t get the picture already, flip to the other side where a samurai warrior stabs a submarine with his sword. The text across the top is a translation of the organization’s English name. The text at bottom translates as “hunter” or “huntsman.”
On to the last t-shirt, which confused me utterly at first. It is a darker version of the Great Wave — under a crazy Van Gogh sky from “A Starry Night,” perhaps Van Gogh’s most famous painting. Mount Fuji is still there, of course.
This is no random act of art: Van Gogh greatly admired Hokusai. He collected Hokusai prints, particularly “The Great Wave.” “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it,” he wrote to his brother Theo.
A few years back, Van Gogh scholars suggested that the imperious waves in “The Great Wave” inspired the rolling masses of light and color in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” sky.
We’ll never know. But soon after, numerous artists rolled out Great Wave/Starry Night hybrid illustrations on t-shirts, as posters, and as full-sized mounted art prints.
By the way, Hokusai was as eccentric in his way as Van Gogh, but much more successful. He had an equally eccentric and talented daughter who also painted.
Much of Hokusai’s work is at least partly hers.
If this interests you at all, catch the very fine Japanese animated feature “Miss Hokusai,” which lately has been on Netflix and other streaming services. If you find it not quite your cup of tea, I still urge you to stay with it until minute 26. Trust me.