Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning, Design & Ideas

In terms of symbols that make you think of Japanese culture, there aren’t many stronger than the koi fish. From seeing these in paintings to little ponds around Asian-inspired restaurants and other destinations, the koi fish is likely one of the most recognizable symbols of Japanese culture. This is also the case when talking about tattoos of this well-known fish.

The koi fish is a staple in Japanese tattooing (also known as Irezumi) and has long been a symbol that many take on as a representation of themselves. If you see any large-scale Japanese tattoos in your life, you are bound to see the koi fish incorporated into the image in some way. This should tell you how important the image of the koi is in Japanese culture and why so many get this tattoo.

In this post, we are going to dive into the lore behind the koi fish and talk about the symbolism that is attached to it. We will also talk about some of the different variations of the koi fish tattoo and what these variations symbolize.

In many cases, the images associated with the koi or the colors of the koi fish will tell another story about what the koi fish tattoo means. You should have a much better understanding of the koi fish tattoo by the time you have finished reading this. We hope it gets you closer to getting your very own koi fish tattoo.

Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning

Koi fish are a legendary fish in Japanese culture. They believe that the koi (or carp as it translates to) has the ability to climb the falls of the Yellow River to become a dragon. Because of this legend, koi fish tattoos often symbolize a person’s goals and aspirations to better themselves.

The koi is a common symbol of power and transition often seen in Irezumi, the traditional Japanese tattooing practice. This ancient practice is rooted in spirituality but also as a marker of status and in some periods, it was used to label criminals. In Japanese, koi is a word that also translates to “love” and “affection” which has led the colorful fish to become a symbol of love and lovers as well as aspiration.

They are known for swimming upstream no matter what the water conditions are, because of this they are often seen as a symbol of perseverance. Swimming upstream, against the current also leads many to associate them with independence and non-conformity.

They are also known to represent good luck and bravery. Koi are generally included in larger tattoo pieces that follow traditional Japanese designs. The fish is generally placed on a body of raging water to show the movement of the Koi. Lotus flowers or cherry blossoms are sometimes included to create a fuller piece but also to introduce more traditional symbols.

The flowers add a sense of life and nature to the design as well as the idea of renewal. Black and grey waves are sometimes rendered in the background of the design, creating thick streams of water, wind, or in some cases sunbeams. This imagery is traditional to tattooing practices in Japanese culture that have existed for centuries and is often seen in ink paintings as well.

Koi fish are said to symbolize bravery because when they are taken from the water, they do not thrash or fight, but simply accept what is being done to them. Many people view this as bravery in the face of defeat.

Koi tattoos are often designed with elegant curves and angles and brightly colored scales. In larger pieces, the koi are tattooed along with serpent-like dragons or terrible demons to represent the myth of the koi who is transformed into a dragon. The myth tells of the hundreds of koi who struggled to swim up a waterfall that continuously increased in height due to the malice of the surrounding demons. The koi who succeeds in reaching the top is turned into a golden dragon by the Gods as a reward for its perseverance.

Koi fish also have a very long lifespan and can sometimes live for up to 200 years. In this sense, the koi symbolizes longevity and good luck. Anyone who lives this long is bound to have some good luck along the way so to have this represented in a tattoo tells us that the person wearing the tattoo is looking for a little luck and health in their lives.

A koi fish tattoo is a great option for someone who wants to depict the following personal ideals; you’ve overcome major adversity, you are a fighter, you are independent or brave, you never give up or you consider yourself lucky. Koi are a symbol of prosperity as well because of their long lifespan. Because of the long life span of the koi fish, they are proven to be fighters and prosperous. From this, they have also become a representation of wisdom and patience, attributes that are acquired through decades of life and experience.

Koi Fish Tattoo Variations

There are a variety of meanings for koi fish tattoos which can vary based on the color of the fish. The well-known orange color does not often occur in nature as they are the product of a breeding plan meant to produce a more marketable fish. Koi fish are bred to develop a rainbow of colors and rarely do the scales on koi reflect only one color. The scales are most often a blend of red, white, and black with spots and streaks of each color more dominant on different varieties of fish.

One modern variety, however, the Ogon, is usually just one shade of a metallic color such as gold, copper, silver, or very rarely cream.

Single-colored fish utilize a specific color to symbolize different qualities. Examples of this are:

Red Koi Fish Tattoo

Koi in this color generally represent love and are also considered to be energetic and are considered one of the strongest koi tattoos. Red koi often sport white stripes with or without spots of black.

Black Koi Fish Tattoo

Black can symbolize overcoming adversity or pain with a positive, successful outcome. Black koi with streaks of white is known as the “tattooed dragon” koi and is a symbol of the mythological dragon as well as traditional ink paintings.

Blue Koi Fish Tattoo

Blue koi are generally seen as being very masculine but can also represent reproduction. If a blue koi is designed to swim up it can represent overcoming a person’s hurdle while swimming down can depict the hurdle having already been surmounted. Shades of blue can range from metallic to bright, sky blue.

Cream Koi Fish Tattoo

Cream-colored koi are extremely rare and revered as a striking and special breed. Ensuring that the fish’s scales are bred to appear this way is extremely difficult and so it has become a symbol of individuality and uniqueness.

Half Koi and Dragon Tattoo

The half-koi and dragon tattoos are symbolic of the struggle of the koi fish as it climes the yellow river against the current. As we spoke of earlier, the struggle and determination of the koi to swim upriver to morph into a dragon tells us a story of aspiring to be better. Therefore, this image is a representation of transitioning in life.

Make sure you are looking for a Japanese tattoo artist before you go into your local shop. The tattoo art of Irezumi is a specific skill set that not every tattoo artist has. Fortunately, you can find the work of most tattoo artists online before you go in and talk to them. If you have looked and are still having trouble finding an artist who will get the job done, let us know because we would love to make a recommendation for you.

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