Skip to main content

Japanese Koi Tattoos

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Raye has many body mods, SFSI training, former CFR-D creds, and a decade-long stint as BellaOnline's body art editor under her belt.

About Koi Tattoos

The history and mythology of koi go back to China, over 2,000 years ago. These images and stories were absorbed into Japanese culture. They have been kept as auspicious pets for hundreds of years. They have been popular images throughout the history of Japanese tattoo designs and are now very prevalent in Western tattoo culture.

In real life, these fish are ornamental carp kept in backyard ponds and water gardens. They were bred from ordinary fish to develop their distinct and fantastic patterns and colors. The only things more fantastical than the array of colors that these fish have in the real world are the patterns and colors they are depicted with in tattoos.

This variety has made the design popular in both Eastern and Western tattooing for decades. The designs and shapes can be adapted to any part of the body and nearly any color scheme and style.

  • Why a Koi Tattoo?
    Here is a personal account of one man's choice to get a koi tattoo. He details his reasons for picking this design and how it fits into his personal history.

Bleeding Koi Design

A koi from the Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco, CA.

A koi from the Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco, CA.

The History of Koi

Koi is the Japanese word for "brocaded carp" and refers to the large, colorful fish that have been bred and kept in ponds for centuries. Their formal name nishigikoi translates into "living jewels." Careful breeding of these fish really got a modern foothold in the 1800s, and it has produced a rainbow of colors and markings in the years since.

They are part of Japanese mythology and are symbols of strength, perseverance, and courage. These fish are very long-lived under the right conditions, and this is what has contributed to these interpretations and associations. In myth, the very strong koi will be able to swim upstream and leap waterfalls, being rewarded at the end of their journey by being turned into a dragon.

The Story of Crystal's Koi

The tattoo you see here is on the leg of my friend Crystal. She'd had a few smaller tattoos before, but when it came time for something large, she picked a koi. I think the symbolism of perseverance fits well with how she's overcome many challenges in her life.

The tattoo was designed and tattooed by Bill Liberty. His shop, Liberty Tattoo, is located in Sacramento, CA, where Crystal lives. She's a big lady, and she decided to put this tattoo on her thigh, so it's pretty large. It starts just above her left knee and runs up to the top of her thigh. The entire tattoo took several sessions. Large, complex tattoos are most often done in stages, with the colors being added from darkest to brightest. The black outline and shading were done first. Then, all of the blue water coloring and shading was done. And finally, the brightly colored fish and flower were finished.

See a Koi Coming to Life

© 2007 Raye

Comments About Koi Tattoos

Michael Adams from USA on January 13, 2012:

Someday I'll get a tattoo ... I just don't know what of yet. These are beautiful designs though!

FrugalandFab from New Hampshire on January 13, 2012:

I simply adore koi tattoos. I was fortunate enough to have a dear friend have one of the most stunning tattoos placed on her back by an amazing artist while I watched, ever since I have had a huge affinity for them. Your post was wonderful thanks so much for writing it.

David Stillwell from Sacramento, California on January 13, 2012:

Relache: What a wonderful little discovery this morning. I very much enjoyed this hub. I love tattoos, and have had the idea of a koi tattoo tucked into the back of my mind. I think the hardest part of getting a tattoo is finding an artist you trust. The detail of your hub is awesome. It encompasses the history of the fish and the fish as a tattoo perfectly. I like also that you have included outside links to deeper information. A great example of how a hub should flow. Thank you for writing this.

kendall on October 19, 2011:

Scroll to Continue

iv'e had a very good cover up with a japenese peony and a koi design around my lower right arm . at the moment iv'e had 2 sitting's and about anouther 3 and ill be done . when done ill show you a good picture . happy tattooing and more from me soon .........

seousman from Pakistan on July 06, 2011:

Really awesome tattoos, nice bright and very beautiful colours. its Great Hub

Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on January 20, 2011:

C, if you actually read my Hub, you'll notice I don't connect the Yakuza with koi imagery at all. Kat Von D is known for her artwork, not her brains.

C on January 07, 2011:

The Yakuza have no direct association purely with Koi, although this doesn’t mean that they do not represent themselves in this art form. In the main, the Yakuza style of tattoo is reflected in modern day art forms using the stronger and more dangerous symbols such as the tiger or the snake, these are far more prominent in the Yakuza tattoo art forms. In fact more prominient is the style of the Japanese warrior in the act of slaying Japanese mythical beasts, this style is very popular and far more prominent than that of the koi fish art.

Descartes from grand prairie on December 05, 2010:

I like the Koi tattoos that make a Ying/Yang pattern. Interesting photos.

taipan on October 19, 2010:

im getting a koi tatt next week cant wait :)

butterfly Tattoo from Dallas Texas on September 19, 2010:

Beautiful colours. Definitely some of the most interesting designs on offer

flowerpuff on September 04, 2010:

i love the colours in the koi. the flowers are also nice i would get this

wency5000 on July 31, 2010:

great...ihave a japanese koi tattoo in my lift armm..awesom....

simplyjo on July 23, 2009:

Amazing tattoos.. i love em and have a Chinese one on my right arm too - though its nothing like these :) lol

Reynolds_Writing from Atlanta, Georgia on July 05, 2009:

I love the bright colors in Koi tattoos.. Great hub topic.

muiomuio from Portugal, Lisbon on January 18, 2009:

I have just finished drawing a koi fish to a possible tattoo but I had a mistake on the koi's face :(

taylorblue from Canada on September 10, 2008:

@relache...I'm in the process of getting that sleeve now...I have three sessions done. I took the fish from up here but he switched it up...I'll post pictures when it's done. :)

Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on January 19, 2008:

Full-body tattooing carries the strongest Yakuza connotations. And tattooed women are sometimes considered to be Yakaza property. However, younger people are embracing the Western perception of tattoos more as a fashion, and in a generation or two that attitude will most like have changed.

Robinson Rex from Lowell, MA on January 19, 2008:

It might be beneficial for people to know that the Koi tattoo (and most tottoos in Japan) are linked in the public mind with the Japanese Mafia. There are even signs in public baths that say "No Tattoos". This could be why Kat Von D. won't do them.

ElatedState from Edmonton on December 12, 2007:

Apparently these are one of the only things Kat Von D. of the show L.A. Ink will not tattoo. I'm not sure why...

Kiz Robinson from New Orleans, Louisiana on December 05, 2007:

Interesting fact: The common goldfish is related to the koi/carp. True story.

In other news, great hub relache. I -love- tattoo hubs.

Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on November 26, 2007:

Patty, if you ever attend a tattoo convention, that's where you'll find the tattoo contests.

trakker14 from franklin on November 26, 2007:

Wow awesome tattoos I have a few myself but those are great..

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on November 26, 2007:

That's quite an investment! I watch Miami Ink sometimes -- a couple of the artists in that shop are extremely profroessional asnd put their whole selves into their artwork. Best of success with that sleeve!

Are there tattoo contests or shows in which folks can enter and win prizes - it would be better than an annual bodybuilding competition that we have here, imo.

taylorblue from Canada on November 25, 2007:

I think my sleeve will be $1000 at least..I already have $600 worth of tattoos right now... :)

Volatto on November 25, 2007:

Nice hub! I have always wanted to know what koi meant. The art of tattooing is so beautiful :D

Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on November 24, 2007:

Tattoos don't have to necessarily be expensive, but they sure aren't cheap either!

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on November 24, 2007:

What lovely artwork! Is it expensive?

taylorblue from Canada on November 22, 2007:

i have done a bit of research and some picked out...

Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on November 20, 2007:

Do you have a design worked up already or are you doing research?

taylorblue from Canada on November 20, 2007:

This is awesome...I am getting a koi sleeve in June...I can't wait!

Related Articles