Koi are Asian carp, originally domesticated in China and now also immensely popular as a cultural symbol in Japan. In Western countries, koi generally do not hold special symbolic significance and are simply seen as decorative fish in ponds and gardens.
However, within the tattoo world, the traditional folklore behind koi is well known, because that folklore and meaning informs the tattoo art that artists have brought to Western countries.
Despite their docile nature, koi are surprisingly powerful jumpers, famous for the ability to swim upstream in roaring rivers and even up waterfalls. A Chinese idiom states that “Koi jumps the Dragon Gate”, referring to a legend in which ascending the Dragon Gate waterfall would turn the fish into a dragon. Through the tenacity and endurance of the fish, it becomes a new being entirely, and this is linked to the idea of a sudden, inspiring leap into a higher social class.
Koi have also been said to face death as bravely as Samurai, as they supposedly do not wriggle and squirm when they are pulled from the water and set on the cutting board. They face the chef’s knife with perfect peace, and for this reason they are also associated with courage and fearlessness. Koi fish will often be included in Samurai tattoo designs.
In Japan, carp kites are flown to celebrate Children’s Day as well as occasionally to celebrate the birth of a new baby boy. The kites look like they’re swimming in the breeze, an allusion to the story of the koi that swims upstream to become a dragon.
Like cherry blossom tattoo designs, koi are often integrated as a part of sleeves and full-body tattoos in traditional Japanese tattoo designs. As time goes on, koi are becoming more popular as a solitary standalone image (as are simpler tattoo designs in general in Japan, as the art of tattoo becomes less associated with yakuza and more acceptable to the ordinary public).
The most popular places for koi are on the arm or shoulder, as the curvature and shape of fish tattoo designs works nicely with the curve of the arm. The leg and side of the torso are also fairly common. Typically the koi is positioned swimming upwards, often surrounded by waves, referencing the koi who fights upstream.
Most koi designs tend to be take up a space on the body that is long and vertical, running along the body upwards. This is a good example of how to integrate it simply into a broader horizontal space – here more attention is paid to the background behind the koi, but it’s in soft blues and grays, against which the bright orange of the fish strikes a sharp, pleasing contrast.
Orange koi are the most common in tattoo designs, but koi are depicted in art in virtually every color and type, allowing the person getting inked to pick a color that compliments his or her existing tattoos, sense of style, etc.
Koi tattoo designs work well for both men and women, as big or small tattoos, and on most parts of the body, making them a solid choice for anyone interested in Japanese tattoo designs or designs with traditional meanings related to perseverance, bravery, and a desire to better one’s self.