Koi Tattoo Meaning

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Many people in the West may not know that koi (koi is Japanese for carp) fish have a special meaning in Japan. Koi fish are seen as symbols of courage, perseverance, bravery and overcoming the difficulties of life. Because of that rich symbolism, they are also often used in Japanese tattoos.

Orange Koi with Water Tattoo on Calf
Orange and Red Koi with Water Tattoo on Calf (Photo by unbreakablejuan / CC BY)

A Brief History of the Actual Koi Fish

Koi fish are a type of carp from Central Europe and Asia. They were first domesticated in China, where they were used as food. Because carp can survive in different climates and water conditions, they were able to spread to many locations–like Japan. 

At first, koi fish could be found with different colors due to natural color mutations. Chinese texts from the Jin Dynasty (266 to 420 AD) mention colored carp. In Japan, the first mention of colored koi occurs in a history book completed in 720 AD. Selective breeding of these colored varieties began more than 1000 years ago.

Fun fact: A koi named Hanako, which means “flower maid”, lived to the ripe old age of 226.

In the early 1800s, people in Japan started breeding koi to make them more beautiful. They made red carp, then pale blue and white, red, and yellow. All of the different kinds of koi were created from this small group of varieties except for the single-colored metallic type which was developed recently.

Gold Koi in Water
Gold Koi in Water

Koi Fish Today

Today, koi fish are renowned for their vibrant colors and exquisite beauty, making them a highly prized commodity among private collectors who shell out huge sums of money to obtain the finest specimens.

Fun fact: The Japanese word koi is a sound-alike for another word in Japanese that mans “love” or “affection”, which is where the symbolism for love and friendship comes from.

But koi have more than just monetary value: they also hold great symbolic significance in Japan–an appreciation that is evidenced by its popularity as a tattoo design choice.

The Koi Fish, The Legend

Chinese legend tells the tale of a mythical mountain, from which cascades a magnificent waterfall that leads up to the Dragon Gate. Koi swim upstream against powerful currents in order to make their daring leap over this falls. 

If successful, they are transformed into magnificent dragons. The few koi who actually make the enormous jump are thus symbols of perseverance and success.

Two Koi Fish Swimming Upstream
Two Koi Fish Swimming Upstream (by Katsushika Hokusai)

Although Chinese in origin, the carp is now widely celebrated in Japan, particularly for its manly qualities. Not only is it said to climb waterfalls bravely, but if caught, it lies upon the cutting board awaiting the knife without a quiver, not unlike a samurai (warrior) facing a sword.

Koi Flags Flying for Children's Day in Japan
Koi Flags Flying for Children’s Day in Japan (Photo by 663highland / CC BY)

You’ve probably seen the colorful koi windsocks or pennants (known as koinobori). Originally these were flown from flag poles for Japanese Boys’s day, with one flag for each son. Now families will fly a koi for every child so that the courage and determination of the legendary koi will bring healthy lives to the children.

Koi Tattoo Meanings

As you would expect, the meaning of koi tattoos mirrors the symbolism of the colorful koi itself: ambition, success, tenacity, love, friendship, courage, and perseverance.

Japanese Koi Tattoo
Blue Koi Tattoo Design

However, unlike the real world breeding of koi that produced their beautiful colors, koi tattoos can have a huge array of colors. The symbolic meaning of the different koi colors are drawn from the symbolism of colors in general, not from traditional Japanese tattoos. But this is the beauty of tattoos—they change through time and across borders as people make them their own.

Black Koi Fish Tattoo

A black koi fish tattoo is a powerful symbol of strength and resilience, often associated with overcoming difficult obstacles in life. In Japanese culture, each member of the family–mother, father son or daughter–can have their own representation by different colored Koi fish that are flown as flags on Children’s Day to show they will “swim upstream” against all odds. The color black has been used to represent fathers who courageously face any obstacle along their journey.

Black Koi Fish with Cherry Blossoms in Water on Upper Arm
Black Koi Fish with Cherry Blossoms in Water on Upper Arm (Photo by michael iCruz / CC BY)

Blue Koi Fish Tattoo

The blue koi fish is a symbol of strength and fertility, used to represent the son in some families. This koi tattoo also embodies peace, serenity and tranquility–a calm combination that serves as the foundation for the courage to brave any storm.

Blue Koi Fish in Water with Cherry Blossoms on Calf
Blue Koi Fish in Water with Cherry Blossoms on Calf (Photo by Kelvyn Skee / CC BY)

Red Koi Fish Tattoo

Red koi fish tattoos are a vibrant choice, often associated with intense love and devotion. Red koi tattoos can also symbolize motherhood, power, strength or bravery–red being the color of energy in many cultures.

Koi and Dragon Gate Tattoo Design
Koi and Dragon Gate Tattoo Design

Gold, Yellow, and Orange Koi Fish Tattoo

Koi fish tattoos, with their legendary power to transform into a golden dragon, are often chosen in warm hues for the symbolic representation of wealth and prosperity.

Koi Fish Tattoo with Chrysanthemum
Koi Fish Tattoo with Chrysanthemum (Photo by Inked in many places / CC BY)

Silver Koi Fish Tattoo

A silver koi fish tattoo represents success in business and wealth. The color silver in Japan also stands for prosperity and plenty.

A silver koi tattoo can serve as a reminder to never give up and to keep pushing forward in pursuit of one’s goals. It can also serve as an inspiring reminder of the abundance that awaits us when we don’t let any obstacle hold us back.

Silver Koi Fish in Water
Silver Koi Fish in Water (Photo by Angus Fraser / CC BY)

White Koi Fish Tattoo

The white koi fish is one of the most beloved species in the world. The white color of the fish symbolizes purity, even when things become difficult in life’s journey. In some cultures, white koi are also seen to represent hope and positivity during challenging times. A white koi tattoo is a reminder that you can find the courage to continue pushing towards your goals, no matter how difficult it may be.

Black and White Koi Tattoo Design
Black and White Koi Tattoo Design

White and Red Koi Fish Tattoo

In Japanese culture, the combination of red and white has a special significance. The Japanese flag, with its red circle on a white field is a great example.

Known as kohaku, this combination of colors is often found in wedding ceremonies and celebrations. Bright, long curtains adorn the doorways of the ceremony, while ornaments in hues of red and white are given to guests as gifts. The color scheme also appears in traditional Japanese clothing, such as kimonos and yukata, with intricate patterns of red and white decorating the garments.

Many Different Colored Koi in Pond
Many Different Colored Koi in Pond

The colors are also symbolic of nature and the seasons. Red is seen as representing summer, while white symbolizes winter. The combination of colors represents a balance between opposing elements—yin and yang—creating harmony and balance in the universe.

Black and Red, and White and Red Koi in a Yin Yang Tattoo Design
Black and Red, and White and Red Koi in a Yin Yang Tattoo Design

Koi Tattoo Meaning

In conclusion, the Japanese koi fish tattoo has become an iconic tattoo design for body art enthusiasts. This beautiful creature has a long and rich history in both our physical and symbolic worlds. Today, many people are applying its symbolism to tattoo designs in different colors that have various meanings according to their own cultures and interpretations. Whether you choose a traditional gold koi fish or go for something more abstract there is no wrong way to honor your individual journey with this special aquatic symbol. As carp they battle upstream bent on perseverance while as dragons they are ready to soar. For those looking to express something personal through this powerful symbol, the possibilities are endless.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do two koi fish tattoo designs mean?

Sometimes seen swimming together in pairs, two koi fish represent the harmony between opposite forces of life. In a yin yang symbol, they can represent the interdependence of opposites.

What is the most popular placement for a koi fish tattoo design?

While koi tattoos can cover an entire back or swim across a foot, a koi fish sleeve tattoo can be an ideal location for the accompanying water or waterfall.

Are koi fish tattoos just for men?

No. Although originally a symbol for Boys’s Day in Japan, today they are used for Children’s Day. The aspiration toward success, courage, perseverance, strength and love apply equally well to all genders.

March 13, 2023