Guide To Koi Fish Tattoo Designs: Meaning, Color, Direction + 50+ Examples

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The koi fish tattoo fever has started a long time ago with no sign of stopping.

And the reasons for it are varied and many.

From positive koi fish tattoo meanings all the way to beautiful and elegant tattoo designs, the koi carp has been a tattoo staple for years.

Koi fish have a beautiful appearance, vibrant colors as well as a depth in meaning, and as such are a prominent symbol of the oriental cultures of Japan and China.

The koi carp has been around in these Asian lands for thousands of years, and has infiltrated their mythology, art and design for a very long time.

So, let us get into koi fish symbolism, koi fish color meanings, as well as amazing koi fish tattoo design inspiration!

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Every Tattoo Has A Story – Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning

Koi or more specifically nishikigoi (literally “brocaded carp”), are colored varieties of the Amur carp (Cyprinus rubrofuscus) that are kept for decorative purposes in outdoor koi ponds or water gardens.

This three-letter word is actually the Japanese word for carp that has been used since the early 18th century to describe this specific type of fish.

But, a deeper investigation tells us that the word koi is a “homophone” for another Japanese word which means affection.

This is why the Japanese see this colorful fish as a symbol of love, affection, and friendship.

However, this is not the only symbolic interpretation of koi fish, as it’s usually the case with animal tattoos.

Koi fish are heavily associated with:

  • courage,
  • strength,
  • determination,
  • success,
  • good luck,
  • prosperity,
  • non-conformity,
  • perseverance

These characteristics stem from their unique capability (and habit) of swimming against the current and upstream.

Additionally, unlike other fish that move a lot when caught, koi fish are incredibly calm when caught.

For these reasons, as well as for their bravery for swimming upstream, they are often associated with Samurai warriors in Japan.

People born under the zodiac sign of Pisces also resonate deeply with the symbol of two koi fish swimming in a circle to represent their personality.

Their motifs are also sometimes in mermaid tattoos to represent two swimmers.

So, what is the koi fish legend that gave it fame?

An ancient tale explains that there was once a huge school of golden koi swimming upstream the Yellow River (Huang He) in China, glimmering as they swam together through the river, giving it a beautiful golden color.

As they swam against the current, the koi fish started gaining a lot of strength.

They reached a waterfall at the end of the river, and many of the koi turned back seeing this challenge, letting the flow of the river carry them away.

However, the remaining koi decided to stay and refused to give up.

Leaping from the depths of the river, they attempted to reach the top of the waterfall to continue their journey, but all of them failing.

The local demons noticed their efforts, and mocked for it. Out of pettiness they even heightened the waterfall to make it harder for the brave fish.

But, this being a story of perseverance, the resilient koi fish kept trying.

After a hundred years of jumping, one koi finally reached the top of the waterfall.

This left the gods speechless, and the determination of that koi fish was rewarded by turning it into a golden dragon.

In the Chinese lore, the golden dragon represents power and strength.

And because of the lone koi that made it to the top of the waterfall, they are also known as symbols of a destiny fulfilled.

Their long history and hardy nature has also led to koi being associated with longevity.

Koi Fish Varieties & Color Meanings

Koi of certain colours have their own particular symbolism. There are also meanings connected with different koi fish varities.

1. Pink Koi Fish

The pink color sometimes disappears as the koi grows larger and the skin thickens and the fish becomes a white koi, but some of these fish keep the pink tint for a long time or even years. Pink koi fish symbolizes femininity, female power, and particularly daughters.

2. Black Koi Fish (Karasu)

The all black koi fish is a symbol of masculinity, strength, fatherhood, and perseverance.

3. White and Red Koi Fish (Kohaku & Kuchibeni)

If the fish has a white body with red marks and spots (Kohaku) it signifies career success. The other variant, the white and red patterned fish has a red coloring around its mouth, like lipstick (Kuchibeni) it represents love and long-lasting relationships.

4. Red Koi Fish

There are no fully red koi carps, but there are many that include red in its variegation. Red koi tattoos represent motherhood, female power, strength and care.

5. Silver Koi Fish (Ogon)

With a solid platinum body, silver koi fish or Ogon represents wealth fulfillment through business success.

6. Yellow Koi Fish (Bekko)

The koi fish with a yellow body and black stripes (Bekko) symbolizes true love and it means “tortoiseshell” in Japanese.

7. Gold Koi Fish (Yamabuki)

Gold koi fish (Yamabuki) symbolizes riches, wealth, gold, and prosperity. It says wealth is on the way, and you need to use it wisely.

8. Blue Koi Fish (Shusui)

Blue koi fish represents masculinity and masculine energy as well as tranquility and peace. The shimmering blue signifies childhood and calmness.

9. White Koi Fish (Shiro Moji & Platinum Ogon)

A white bodied koi symbolises success at work or may also represent the son of a household.

10. White and Black Koi Fish (Kumonryu)

A koi with a white body and black spots or with an all-black body symbolises life’s transformations and future growth. It was named after the Japanese dragon of transformation.

Meaning of the Koi Fish Swimming Directions

When using the koi fish in a tattoo design, you can choose in which direction the fish will swim (or face) in the design.

As we’ve mentioned above, the koi fish migrate swimming upstream, against the stream.

Powerful and energetic life force is shown by its ability to swim against currents and travel upstream.

This requires a lot of strength, bravery and ferocity.

So, depending on the koi fish symbolism you want to go for, there are two options:

  • Koi fish swimming upstream: a struggle or the fighting of obstacles. This direction is used in a koi fish tattoo design as a reminder that you won’t give up. It can also mark overcome obstacles and having gained the strength needed to continue against the current.
  • Koi fish swimming downstream: this direction has various interpretations: 1) lack of strength to make it against the obstacles, 2) has yet to achieve the goals, 3) having already overcome all obstacles and no longer needing to fight against the current.

Ying Yang & Koi Fish

According to the Yin Yang principle, everything in the world exists as opposite and inseparable entities, to create balance and harmony.

The concept dates back to the 3rd century BCE. This concept holds a fundamental position in Chinese philosophy and culture.

All the forces like black and white, darkness and light, positive and negative, male and female, and good and bad are always balanced and opposite to each other.

So, the black and white parts of the yin yang symbol can be represented by two koi, one male and one female.

Through this balance, energy between the fish keeps on flowing.

A pair of koi is often seen as a good luck symbol or representative of a happy, harmonious marriage

All this said, it is natural that the koi fish symbol is enormously used for traditional Japanese tattoos.

Just like the dragon and the cherry blossom, it is a symbol of transformation and experimentation and as such it resonates with many people looking to .

Best Koi Fish Tattoo Placements

When looking for feminine small koi fish tattoo which is a common choice for a tattoo for women, there are many examples online of small and fineline tattoos done on wrists, behind the ear, on the tricep and bicep area.

A common placement is the forearm koi fish tattoo, which gives us great and harmonious space for an elongated koi fish, especially popular among men. Forearm tattoos can go both ways, inner or outer forearm, as well as a koi fish band.

It is also common to go for a koi fish tattoo sleeve, which gives a lot of room to develop a whole scene of a koi fish swimming upstream.

Along that line, many go for a half sleeve koi fish tattoo, when opting to skip on a full arm coverage.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a bigger but yet more easily hidden version, a koi fish thigh tattoo is a common and good option.

Check out the galleries to find more examples below!

Koi Fish Tattoo Ideas

To help you with your research for your next tattoo design, we went on a hunt through Instagram to find the best koi fish tattoo ideas.

Take a look below to check them out all:

Are you looking for a custom koi fish tattoo design? We got you.

Our expert tattoo artists will provide a quick initial draft to get you going.
Happy inking ❤

Milena Petrovic

Milena Petrovic

Co-founder of Tattoo Stylist

About the author

Milena has decided to start an organization that will create a safe environment for everybody to get their first, second or third tattoo and to encourage young people to transform their ideas into tattoos safely, with talent and vision.

You can find her writing about tattoos on Quora or updating our Pinterest profile with awesome tattoo ideas!

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