Koi Fish Tattoo

The Mythology Behind The Koi Fish Tattoo

Is there something fishy about your next piece?

Koi Fish Tattoos

Koi fish are among the most recognizable fish in the world.

They are a popular piece with a versatile design.

Koi fish tattoos are done in different colors, each with their own meaning.

The symbolism of a koi fish tattoo can also change based on what symbols they’re surrounded by.

Body placement can also have an impact.

It’s important to get an artist who understands koi fish symbolism.

You two will be able to work together on your desired effect.

After all, you don’t want something that looks pretty but feels irrelevant to you.

Koi fish tattoos are hugely popular, especially in China and Japan.

Koi fish may also appear in household decor, or household aquariums.

There is, in fact, a huge subculture dedicated to this fish alone.

As you ponder your koi fish tattoo, it’s interesting to research these aquatic creatures.

You may be surprised at how deep the koi love goes.

When you get a koi fish design, you join a community that has grown out of the popular koi fish legend.

A community made up of koi fish enthusiasts, breeders, and people who will pay a hefty price for a fishy friend.

Koi Fish Legend

The legend of the koi is influential on Japanese culture and is often associated with Japan.

Koi is the Japanese pronunciation of the word for this type of carp, but they are originally from China.

Chinese invaders introduced Japan to koi thousands of years ago.

The koi quickly gained popularity in Japan and became a popular gift.

They are especially appropriate for someone in a prestigious position.

Koi fish tattoo symbolism varies depending on their color and placement.

But the overarching symbolism is of hope, bravery, and fulfilling your destiny.

The story goes that, once upon a time, some golden koi were swimming with the current in the Yellow River.

The Yellow River is a real river in China, the second-largest in fact.

The Yellow River is a necessary resource for the land, but it has also caused floods and devastation.

So the setting for the story already has a yin/yang quality to it.

The golden koi were glittering along the water’s surface.

They looked brilliant under the sunny skies and were having a lovely time.

Then, the school reached the bottom of a waterfall.

Intimidated by the rough waters and the height of the waterfall, some koi fish turned back.

They opted for a smooth, easy life where they could swim along with the current.

Some other more determined koi fish chose to stay the course.

They began flinging themselves upward to reach the top of the waterfall.

This continues for 100 years until finally, a koi makes it to the top.

He flings himself upward and reaches the top of the waterfall, known as the dragon gate.

The gods, smiling on this koi fish and his efforts, turn the koi into a golden dragon.

The dragon is then free to swim in the sky among the glittering stars.

There are many interpretations of this story.

One interpretation is that it’s about choice.

If you choose to swim with the current, you will live a calm and happy life.

If you choose something more challenging and stick to it, you may reap bigger rewards.

And those rewards may be beyond your wildest dreams.

Have you been working hard at a goal?

Are you going against the grain?

Have you abandoned the mainstream in search of something more special?

A koi fish tattoo may be well suited to you and your journey.

We will detail different koi fish tattoos and their meanings later in the article.

But before we discuss colors and placement, let’s examine the effect this legend has had on the world at large.

Is the Koi a Real Kind of Fish?

The koi fish of legend is indeed inspired by a real fish.

These fish come in rainbow colors and are quite size-able- they can grow to be up to 3 feet long.

Koi fish are pretty easy to maintain and are a very popular pet.

They are especially loved by people with ornate gardens, as they can live comfortably outside.

As cold-water fish, they’re easy to maintain in most environments.

They are friendly fish and will socialize both with each other and even their owner.

Koi are known for popping their heads out of the water to greet their owners, and some even like a little pat on the head.

Once you have live koi fish in your home, you may have them for a while.

These fish can live up to 25 years long.

If you love koi fish but can’t commit to long term pet ownership, maybe a koi tattoo or art piece is a better idea.

A koi is just a colorful variation of a carp, but it has become popular because of what it symbolizes.

People continue to keep koi as pets, or adorn themselves with images of koi to welcome some positive change in their lives.

Koi are truly unique in the world of domestic fish.

Where most people will pick up a goldfish for a couple of dollars at their local pet shop, Koi are in a league of their own.

The Fascinating World of Koi Breeding

A large, detailed tattoo doesn’t come cheap.

With a reputable artist, you may pay $800 and up for a sleeve.

But a tattoo may be the more budget-friendly way to get some koi blessings into your life.

Some koi fish are less expensive than others, but some can be worth over 1 million dollars.

There is a whole sect of wealthy people who will pay top dollar for the right koi.

How could a scaly creature fetch such a price?

Some collectors will drop big money on a fish with just the right look and coloring.

And breeders are dedicated to creating those fish.

Like dogs, koi need to be carefully bred to maintain their integrity.

Within this one type of carp, there are over 100 breeds of koi fish.

Because the koi’s coloring can affect its meaning, each breed has to have a distinct look.

A koi fish’s colors can sit farther beneath the skin or closer to the surface.

Like a tattoo, the more pigment at the surface of the skin, the more brilliant and colorful the effect.

A breeder is looking for koi fish with bright, recognizable coloring.

They will then use those fish to create more in the bloodline.

What Makes a Superior Koi Fish?

To the untrained eye, all koi fish are alike.

For people in the koi fish world, however, not every koi fish is created equal.

Like selecting the perfect design for a tattoo, koi fans are on the hunt for the perfect fishy companion.

A koi enthusiast will look at a koi fish’s shape, how healthy their skin is, and most importantly their coloring.

You don’t have to be a koi fish expert to get a koi fish tattoo, but it helps to know what makes an attractive fish!

Not everyone can tell a good koi tattoo from a bad one, but you’ll impress the enthusiasts with a koi that looks fit for the All Japan Koi Show. (more on the AJKS later.)


A superior koi has a uniform shape.

The ideal koi is an ellipse, or rounded oval shape.

It should be slim at the head and tail, but thick through the middle.

Collectors also look for uniform fins.

Sometimes a koi’s fins can become damaged or frayed, so this is something to look out for.

Hopefully, your tattoo artist will have the same eye for symmetry.


Not every koi fish has scales, and the ones that do should look very fine.

A koi’s skin should be smooth and lustrous like quality porcelain.

It should glimmer under the surface of the water, which really showcases the fish’s coloring.


There are so many varieties of koi.

Each one has its own coloring, and the coloring is extremely important to koi buyers.

If a koi is all one color, then it should look uniform and healthy.

In most popular koi varieties, there are spots of deep saturated red.

The shades of red on a koi fish should be incredibly saturated.

They may blur together in a younger fish, but in the adult fish, the patterns will be distinct.

In multi-colored koi, whites should be brilliant and bright, not cream-colored or muddy in any way.

If your tattoo is to feature one of these koi varieties- be sure your artist understands how important it is to maintain the integrity of each color.

Most Common Types of Koi

The fish in the legendary story of the koi are golden.

In real life, there are golden and yellow varieties of koi, but they are hard to come by.

The single colored varieties can be difficult to breed, because the color has to be so uniform.

Most koi fish tattoos reflect the coloring on these popular variations within the species.


The koi image you’re most familiar with is likely the Kohaku.

These fish are also known as the “king of all koi” because of their brilliant markings.

This fish has a brilliant white body with orange-red splotches.

Ideally, the edges between colors are crisp rather than blurry.

This was the first variety of koi to be bred for its color in the 1700’s, when Japanese rice farmers began breeding koi.

Taisho Sanke

This variety of koi is the most stunning choice for a tattoo.

It has the same coloring as the Kohaku koi, but with black spots as well.

Unlike other varieties of koi, these black spots only appear on the top part of their bodies.

This can be a lovely way to add some dimension to your tattoo.

Especially if you want the white coloring to look bright, black ink will create a contrast and, ultimately, a beautiful look!


A Showa koi is very similar to the Sanke, because the same colors are present.

In this variety, however, the koi’s body is mainly black with white and orange spots.

In the Sanke, the main body color is white.

With a Showa koi fish, black spots can appear all over the koi’s body.

If you’re a fan of black and white tattoos, this may be the one for you!

A splash of orange-red never hurt anybody, and can make for a stunning splash of color.

Koi Fish Celebrations in Japan

There are so many vibrant celebrations and festivals in Japanese culture, and the koi fish hasn’t been left out from the festivities!

The All Japan Koi Show

Since 1969, Tokyo has hosted the All Japan Koi Show once a year.

This is an opportunity for breeders to show off their creations.

It is also where some of the best koi fetch the biggest prices.

Auctioning is part of the event, and attendees relish the opportunity to buy a beautiful koi direct from its breeder.

Just like in dog shows, there are competitions for koi in different categories.

The overall winner of the competition is usually one of the popular varieties above.

You may have your preferences, but these are the juggernauts of the fish kingdom

The Flying Carp Festival

You may see wind-sock style fish blowing in the breeze on your neighbor’s roof.

If it’s the month of May, they’re likely celebrating the flying carp tradition.

Every year on May 5th, Japanese children hang these flying carps on banners on their rooftops.

This used to be reserved for the oldest male of the family. In some traditions, the eldest boy still gets the orange-red carp.

The koi is meant to encourage the children to grow into strong adults.

In this context, the carp streamers (Koi Nobori) represent courage and strength.

In Conclusion

Now, all of that information is great, but what does it have to do with koi tattoos?

In certain corners of the world, the love for koi runs deep.

When you get a tattoo with these details in mind, you can create something that even the most discerning enthusiast will adore.

Based on the koi fish legend, you’ve likely already picked up on some of the symbolism of the koi fish tattoo.

The koi in the story have two choices: to live unremarkable but comfortable lives, or to sacrifice it all for a chance at glory.

Typically, if you want a koi fish tattoo, you belong with the latter group.

Or maybe you’d rather be a laid back fish, following the easy current.

There are life lessons to be learned in either case.

As stated above, a koi fish tattoo’s meaning can change depending on the color, placement, style, and surrounding symbols.