Japanese symbols have always fascinated people, inside and outside Japan. They are a culmination of thousands of years of cultural growth by a society that maintained its own sense of identity into the modern day.
One of the most defining symbols of Japanese culture is that of the humble Koi carp and has been used to create tapestries, paintings, clothes, and tattoos.
However, the enduring nature of the image and symbol makes many wonder the meaning behind the design itself. In a world where a symbol’s meaning varies, a Koi tattoo is no different and is often deeply personalized.
History and Origin
Koi carp are a variety of Amur carp that inhabit areas in freshwater bodies throughout East Asia, though it is truly native to China, Vietnam, and Laos it has been introduced to many areas, including Japan.
Fourth century AD Chinese texts are the first to ever mention the color variations that define Koi from other types of Amur carp, however the oldest mention of the fish in Japan is in the 720 AD ‘Nihon Shoki’, which mentions several emperors of the past commenting on the fish.
Since that time, both Japanese and Chinese infatuation with the fish has continued to grow, and selective breeding took place to increase the variation and beauty of colors that the fish display.
In China, this gave the world the goldfish and its singular beauty, however in Japan, this gave the world the Koi and the multitude of different colors that they can have.
Though, due to Japan’s isolation from the outside world from the 17th to 19th century, the rest of the world had no idea about the diversity of Koi fish until an exhibition showed them in Tokyo in 1914. After that time, their popularity exploded in Japan and abroad.
Today, Koi fish are a popular domesticated fish and the practice of keeping them has become a hobby unto itself.
Due to demand, the price of these fish has increased exponentially, and they have become a true status symbol, with one even selling for $2 million in 2018.
Koi are the national fish of Japan and are probably the animal most associated with Japan. They are so symbolic in Japanese culture that they have become symbols of good luck, prosperity, and good fortune.
Whilst our cultures may have their own symbols of good luck, we tend to place it on certain statues or in certain places. In Japan, these living symbols of fortune are kept in carefully decorated gardens or ponds, using the natural surroundings to show their meaning.
This equally ties into another meaning behind the Koi, that of the perseverance of life.
Another way in which Japanese culture shows its respect for the Koi’s symbolism is decoration. Should you go to Tokyo or Nagoya or Osaka, and seat yourself in an Izakaya booth, you will see various paintings on fans or the screen doors of important images to Japanese culture.
These will be Wisteria and Sakura trees, eagles, Hina dolls, and undoubtedly Koi often swimming circular to one another.
It’s not just Izakayas either, go to any traditional or modern Japanese stores or restaurants, and there will be at least one picture of a Koi fish – I even saw one in a Starbucks once.
With still such deference to symbolism in the modern day, it’s no wonder that Koi tattoos have become so popular around the world.
The variations of Koi tattoos follow the reality of the Koi fish themselves, being rich in diversity and deep in meaning, as well as being hugely popular outside Japan.
Now, you are always welcome to choose your own Koi design, however if you want a tattoo that is rich in meaning and tradition, then there are five typical Koi colors that you can pick:
Red Koi fish – The truest definition of this fish is strong intensity or emotion. It can mean many different things to a person – love, parental connection, strength, power, bravery, devotion – but they all come from the same place, that of strong intensity and emotion. This is a very popular design, thanks to its universal appeal.
Black Koi fish – This fish can represent two things: masculinity and fatherhood, or personal transformation that was derived from overcoming obstacles in one’s life.
Blue Koi fish – Another fish with two possible meanings: masculinity and fertility, and the peace and serenity that only comes through the acceptance of past problems and the will to move past them.
Gold Koi fish – This tattoo combines Japanese and Chinese symbolism together nicely, as in Chinese folk tales a golden Koi swam up a waterfall to become a dragon, while still in the design symbolic of Japanese culture. This tattoo represents things that both cultures admire: wealth and good fortune.
White Koi fish – Traditionally, a white Koi fish would represent the son of the family and, like blue, peace and serenity in one’s life. However, they differ in what they hope for, as a white Koi fish also represents career success.
As well as the traditional Koi colors, you can also have stylized designs, with many people opting to add a dragon in accordance with the Chinese legend, to place the Koi in a yin-yang position to one another, or to have a very traditional lotus flower display added to the Koi tattoo.
Just remember to do what you feel is best for your tattoo.
Thanks to the cultural importance of this fish to Japan, thousands of years of tradition crossing multiple countries, and a universal appeal to any group of people around the world in the modern day, Koi fish are a great way to decorate your body.
With the variation in color and designs in real Koi fish, Koi can easily be adapted to whatever image you have in your mind, allowing you to make your skin into any kind of artwork you want.
Frequently Asked Questions
How big can a Koi fish tattoo be?
Any size you want, the beauty of a Koi fish tattoo is that it can fit anywhere on your body without being poorly inked.
Just make sure before you go ahead with a tattoo that is really small or really large that your chosen artist is comfortable and confident doing it.
Are there any famous people with Koi tattoos?
Yes, there are few, actually. Allison Green from the electronic duo Millionaires has a Koi on her left arm, Charlize Theron has a Koi on her ankle, and Justin Bieber has a Koi tattoo on his arm as well.
What is the meaning of the Dragon Koi tattoo?
The meaning comes from an old Chinese folk tale, where a group of Koi tried to swim up the waterfalls of the Yellow River.
Eventually, all but one gave up, with that one Koi struggling on to reach the top. Once it did, it transformed into a dragon.
The meaning is the same as the legend, persevere through obstacles and overcome problems, and you will be stronger and better off for it.
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