If you’re looking around for ideas for your next tattoo design or even just browsing through the portfolios of tattoo artists, you’re bound to have come across photos of koi fish tattoos.
A common choice for both men and women, koi designs became a major tattoo trend a few years ago and have remained highly popular since.
You might be wondering why someone would get a tattoo of a fish – besides it looking awesome (not that this isn’t a good enough reason!).
As a matter of fact, koi fish have major cultural significance, particularly in Japan and China, and a range of symbolic meanings – making them an interesting, multilayered, and highly customizable choice for a tattoo.
Cultural significance of koi fish
Koi are related to the carp – a common freshwater fish. Carp were originally brought to Japan and domesticated as a food source, but were later bred for their aesthetic appearance – eventually resulting in the 24 varieties of different-colored koi we have today.
Interestingly, they’re distant cousins of goldfish – which are also descended from the carp.
Besides their appearance, the most significant attribute of koi fish is their ability to swim upstream.
According to one legend, if a koi fish managed to climb the Dragon Gate waterfall on the Yellow River, it would transform into a dragon.
It is said that the two elements of yin and yang, the ancient Chinese symbol of two seemingly contradictory forces actually complementing and completing each other, are representations of two koi fish – one male and one female – with the point in each half being the eye of each fish.
The yin and yang symbol represents the concepts of dualism and balance. According to Chinese cosmology, the universe was created out of chaos, which divided itself into two balanced. opposing forces.
In recent decades, koi fish have been kept in decorative ponds and water gardens all around the world.
Koi fish tattoo meanings
Having a rich cultural history, koi fish have amassed a number of symbolic meanings and associations.
In general, these focus on the koi’s ability to swim upstream and even up waterfalls – leading to associations with courage, ambition, and perseverance.
The tendency to go against the current also suggests notions of overcoming obstacles and succeeding in the face of adversity. Koi swimming upstream are considered good luck, while koi swimming with the water current are believed to symbolize bad luck.
Further general symbolic meaning for koi includes that of good fortune, prosperity, success, and longevity. Possibly in reference to the relation between koi and yin and yang, a pair of koi fish is considered a good luck symbol for a long and happy marriage.
In addition to the above meanings, some of the 24 different color varieties of koi have their own symbolic significance. For instance:
- Yamabuki (golden) koi – wealth and riches
- Obon (silver) koi – wealth and success in business
- Kumonryu (black) koi – life changes and transformations
- Kohaku (white) koi – success in career
- Kuchibeni (white and red) koi – love and long-lasting relationships
Koi tattoo designs
Koi fish as a tattoo element suit a range of styles, placements, and designs. Some of the most popular options include:
- Japanese koi fish tattoo – koi fish are of particular importance in Japanese culture. It’s therefore unsurprising that the majority of koi fish based tattoos are done in the Japanese style. Japanese tattoos are highly influenced by traditional, 17th-century woodblock printing. They’re characterized by the use of bright colors, and fine, black outlines.
- Koi fish and lotus flower tattoo – as you’re browsing our gallery, you’ll come across plenty of koi tattoos involving flowers with large petals, usually in shades of pink or blue. These are lotus flowers. They have extensive symbolic meanings in a number of cultures and spiritual belief systems, including Ancient Egypt, Chinese mythology, and Buddhism. In most contexts, the lotus symbolizes rebirth, harmony, purity, and spiritual awakening.
The color of the lotus can be of significance, too. For instance, a blue lotus refers to intellect and wisdom. A purple lotus symbolizes spirituality. For more details, check out our article on lotus flower tattoos.
- Koi fish yin and yang – two koi fish arranged in a shape resembling the yin and yang are another great option. As we’ve already mentioned, some sources claim that the two halves of the yin yang symbol are actually two koi fish, a male and a female.
This design can take the more obvious form – a full circle with black and white fish – or be more subtle, with open space between the two fish.
- Koi fish and water – unsurprisingly, this is one of the most common combinations. Adding water to a koi fish design can enhance the tattoo and make it look more like a ‘complete’ image, rather than an isolated figure of a fish. The waves are most often done in the Japanese style. Both color and all-black solutions are viable options.
- Koi fish tattoo outline – though most koi fish themed tattoos are large and colorful, simpler designs can work really great, too. Reducing the design to a black outline results in an elegant tattoo that is less visible but equally meaningful and gorgeous.
- Koi fish and dragon – dragons are a constant staple of modern tattoo designs. Combining the koi fish with a dragon in a single tattoo can be a reference to the aforementioned legend of the koi fish reaching the top of the waterfall. These two elements together highlight the meaning of the koi – ambition, courage, and self-improvement.It’s worth noting that although in the Western culture dragons have often been associated with evil, violence, and ferocity, their symbolism in the East couldn’t be more different. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, dragons are seen as wise, benevolent protectors.
- Koi fish and writing tattoo – koi fish are often combined with writing, particularly Japanese kanji and Chinese. This is to be expected, given the strong association between koi fish and Asian cultures.
It should go without saying, but if you don’t speak either of these languages, you can never be too sure about getting the intended meaning right. Relying solely on dictionary or online translations could prove disastrous. If possible, seek the advice of someone whose native language is the one you’re thinking of having your phrase written in. Luckily, internet forums make this much easier nowadays!
- Tribal koi – tribal tattoos make use of curved, black lines that taper to a sharp point on both ends. The semi-abstract tribal patterns are a great solution particularly for those looking for a simpler, smaller koi fish tattoo.
One of the many advantages of koi fish tattoo designs is that they are versatile. In size, they can range from a few centimeters to a tattoo large enough to cover your entire back
Depending on the design and the artist, then, a koi tattoo can go just about anywhere on your body.
With that being said, though, most koi designs are large and bold, meaning that a suitable area will have to be chosen.
Arms are a great choice, and sleeve koi tattoos are particularly popular: the shape of the fish means that though the elements are large, the design won’t get distorted and will still look good when wrapped around the arm.
Koi fish sleeves tattoos usually involve other elements to complement the images of the fish. Lotus flowers and waves are the most common choices here. Half-sleeves, or koi fish forearm tattoos, are also an option.
For the same reasons, the legs are also a popular placement choice for koi tattoos. The thighs in particular offer a larger surface area for a bolder design, and the tattoo can be more easily covered up if necessary.
For the biggest or the most intricate designs, the back and the chest are the recommended choices. For Japanese-style designs in particular, the back works perfectly – tattoos covering the entire back have been highly significant in Japanese culture.
Celebrities with koi tattoos
Koi tattoos are just as popular among celebrities as they are among the rest of us. Some examples of famous people with koi designs include:
- Allison Green – Allison Green, from the group Millionaires, has a large black and blue koi fish design on her left forearm.
- Charlize Theron – Charlize Theron has a very small koi fish on her right ankle, proving that the design can be scaled down to any size.
- Justin Bieber – Justin Bieber has an all-black koi design on his left arm.
It’s easy to see why koi designs are so popular – they tend to be bold and impressive, mesh well with other elements and tattoos, and provide plenty of scope for a meaningful and unique tattoo.
Take a look through our gallery of koi tattoo pics below to see hundreds of examples of stunning koi fish tattoos and find some inspiration for your own design!
Popular images of koi fish designs
This large, feminine tattoo combines an outline-heavy koi fish with an interesting highlight in the form of Japanese-style water splashes. The pink lotus flower adds further meaning to the tattoo as well as balancing the overall shape of the design.
In an interesting take on the koi fish and dragon tattoo idea, this design apparently combines the two into a single being. The koi fish here looks as if it has the head of a dragon – indicated by the uncharacteristically spiky outlines.
The addition of the water splashes and two lotus flowers makes the design appear fuller and helps to cover the entire width of the arm.
This tattoo appears to be a very subtle representation of the yin and yang. Minimalized to the core elements – two fish arranged in a circle – it’s less obvious than typical yin yang tattoos. By reducing the amount of detail and color, the artist was able to make the design small enough to fit on the person’s wrist.
This is an example of a koi fish tattoo we don’t get to see very often – where the koi fish is black, in an otherwise color tattoo. As we’ve already seen the black koi has a very specific meaning – that of life changes and transformation. Adding small color highlights gives life to the tattoo.
Note also the placement – by allowing the tattoo to extend only partway down the upper arm, you can get a large tattoo that can still be covered when necessary – with a simple t-shirt.
Another example of a large upper-arm koi fish tattoo, this design features a golden koi fish – symbolic of riches and prosperity.
The cherry blossoms in the upper part of this tattoo compliment the koi fish really well, particularly because both elements are important in Japanese culture. Cherry blossoms are the national flowers of Japan. Their meaning can be complex, but in general they symbolize spring, renewal, and serve as a reminder of the fleeting nature of life.
Check out our article on cherry blossom tattoos for more examples and information.
Here’s a truly unique take on the koi fish + lotus flower tattoo design. The muted colors suit the serenity of the scene really well, and the water ripples contribute to the 3D effect achieved by the artist. In fact, this is a curious stylistic combination of the 3D tattoo style with the watercolor technique. It makes for an original, memorable tattoo.
Who said the koi fish in the tattoo had to be alive?! This example proves that a tattoo of a koi fish skeleton can look really awesome.
This koi fish tattoo is highly schematic – leaving just enough detail for the fish to be recognizable as koi. The loose, messy, sketch-style outline is combined with arbitrary splashes of vivid color. In a way, this design is reminiscent of the recent trash polka trend in European tattoo art.
This design makes use of writing in a creative way, resulting in a balanced shape. It includes the lyrics – suitable thematically – from Pink Floyd’s song ‘Wish You Were Here’.
1. Yin and Yang Koi Tattoos
2. Two Koi Tattoos on Back
3. Tribal Koi Tattoo
4. Traditional Koi Fish
5. Tiny Koi Tattoo On Hand
7. Spotted Koi Fish In A Pond
8. Koi Fish with Spots
9. Sleeve Koi Tattoo
10. Sleeve Koi Fish