Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning—Color, Direction, and More

Updated on October 14, 2015
The meaning behind koi fish tattoos of different colors and orientations.
The meaning behind koi fish tattoos of different colors and orientations. | Source

Koi Fish Meaning

The koi fish is a symbol with extremely deep meaning for those who choose it as part of their body art. If you have been considering getting a tattoo that involves a koi fish, take the time first to learn the meaning associated with them. The traditional significance of a koi fish tattoo can vary depending on the fish’s orientation (whether it is going up or down your body) and color. You want to be sure that your koi fish tattoo conveys the desired meaning.

Japanese Koi Fish Legend

A koi on a float during the Gion Festival in Kyoto representing the fish's legendary struggle against all obstacles.
A koi on a float during the Gion Festival in Kyoto representing the fish's legendary struggle against all obstacles. | Source

Koi fish have a very long history in Chinese and Japanese culture. They were originally common carp and were later domesticated and bred to produce certain colors. Chinese invaders brought koi to Japan, where the fish flourished. Koi fish are prominent in the work of Japanese tattoo artists because of a long-standing legend of how the fish become dragons. Most of the meaning and symbolism behind the fish stems from this ancient legend.

How a Koi Became a Dragon

According to legend, any koi that is able to scale the waterfall known as "Dragon's Gate" will be transformed into a dragon.
According to legend, any koi that is able to scale the waterfall known as "Dragon's Gate" will be transformed into a dragon. | Source

According to Chinese and Japanese myth, there was once a giant school made up of thousands of koi fish swimming up the Yellow River in China. As they swam, they gained strength by pushing against the current. However, on the Yellow River, there is a waterfall. Once the fish reached the waterfall, most turned back and just went with the current because it became too hard. The ones who remained continued to try to reach the top of the waterfall. These koi kept trying for one hundred years. At last, one koi successfully leaped to the top of the waterfall. To reward this dedicated koi, the gods turned it into a beautiful golden dragon.

The falls have become known as the "Dragon's Gate.” And legend has it that to this day, any koi that has the strength and perseverance to complete to journey up Dragon's Gate will become a heavenly dragon.

It is also said that if a koi is caught, it will await the cut of the knife without a quiver with the bravery of a Samurai warrior facing the sword in battle. This clearly portrays the cultural beliefs in the strength and courage of the koi.

Did you already know about the legend?

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The Meaning Behind Which Direction the Koi is Swimming

Whether a koi in a tattoo is swimming upstream or downstream can impact its meaning.
Whether a koi in a tattoo is swimming upstream or downstream can impact its meaning.

Beliefs about the meaning and direction a koi fish is swimming vary greatly. Some theories of what it means are actually contradictory. But, if you are using a koi in your tattoo, you can choose the meaning that applies to you. Tattoos are your form of self-expression.

Upstream

  • You are currently in a battle or struggle and are still fighting obstacles but won’t give up.
  • You have overcome obstacles and have now gained the strength you need to continue against the current.

Downstream

  • You don't yet possess the strength to make it against the obstacles and move towards success.
  • You have already achieved your goals and overcome your obstacles, and you are no longer fighting the current.

Koi Fish Symbolism

Koi fish are capable of adapting to many different climates and water conditions and can symbolize strength. It is inherent in a koi's nature to swim upstream. Through the koi fish legend, you can see that they show great determination, dedication, perseverance, and success. Here are some of the things that they can symbolize:

  • Overcoming obstacles and reaching a goal
  • Completing a transformation in life
  • Worldly aspiration and advancement
  • Prosperity, good luck, and a long life
  • Power
  • Independence
  • Masculinity
  • Passionate love
  • Friendship

The Meaning Behind Different Colors of Koi Tattoos

Some of the different koi colors.
Some of the different koi colors. | Source

As mentioned earlier, koi fish were originally common carp and have been bred for distinct colors. Different meanings are associated with each color. Some of the major colors of koi fish are:

  • Black
  • White
  • Red
  • Yellow, orange, or gold
  • Bluish gray
  • Cream

Black

The black koi is associated with successfully overcoming an obstacle. This symbol is great for those who have gone through a tough battle in life and have finally made it to a place of strength. These obstacles can include depression, drug addiction, an abusive relationship, and many other situations.

In Japanese culture, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters are all symbolized by different-colored koi fish. On Children's Day (May 5), families fly flags of the fish representing each member of their household so that they appear to "swim upstream" against the wind. The black koi is the symbol of the father.

Red

The red koi often has the connotation of love. Not just any love—a very intense love. A red or orange koi is a symbol for the mother of the family, and a red or pink koi is a symbol for a daughter. Red koi can also symbolize power and bravery, both common associations with the color red.

Blue

The blue koi is often very masculine and can be associated with reproduction. Blue and white koi are symbols of the son of a family. As with anything blue, it also represents peace, tranquility, and calmness.

Yellow

Tattoos often use a combination of yellow and orange to represent a gold-colored koi. These gold-colored fish symbolize fortune and wealth. The Japanese term for them is yamabuki.

Complementary Symbols

Koi fish tattoos often incorporate various symbols, such as the yin-yang symbol, water and fire, dragons, or lotus flowers. Here is what each of them mean:

Yin-Yang

Yin-Yang koi fish tattoo.
Yin-Yang koi fish tattoo. | Source

Koi fish are often paired with the yin-yang symbol. The sides of black and white are said to resemble a female and a male koi swimming together, representing the harmony of two opposite energies coming together as one, creating a perfect balance. In Taoism, yin and yang further symbolize the dueling sides of all things and the perfect balance and harmony of them. The circular movement of the fish represents the belief that all things in life are connected.

The zodiac symbol for Pisces similarly depicts two fish swimming in a yin-yang fashion.

Fire and Water

Including both fire and water with koi fish can further exemplify the balance and harmony in life, much as the yin-yang does. It symbolizes opposite powers coming together.

Dragon

Since the legend states that the koi became a dragon at the end of its long, difficult journey, the two together can represent a transformation.

The dragon koi symbolizes overcoming difficulties, alluding to the koi’s climbing of the Dragon Gate. The dragon koi shows strength and will, the will to go against all odds to reach its destiny. A dragon is also a representation of power and ferocity, along with mystery. It represents a re-birth, new start, or beginning. It indicates the ability to move on and begin with a clean slate.

Lotus Flower

A koi swimming with lotus flowers symbolizes beauty that comes out of hard circumstances.
A koi swimming with lotus flowers symbolizes beauty that comes out of hard circumstances. | Source

The lotus is a beautiful flower that grows out of muddy ponds. Bringing the lotus and the koi together further represent pain, struggle, and growth. Just as the koi started as a little fish and grew into a strong dragon, the lotus starts out in a dirty pond but still becomes beautiful.

A beautiful lotus flower
A beautiful lotus flower | Source

Sleeve and Body Tattoo Gallery

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Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Neville 4 months ago

        Knew about the legend not the colours when I had my koi lotus and dragon tat done.

      • profile image

        Ken stitt 6 months ago

        Go to a traditional Japanese style artist. Ask around shops

      • profile image

        Chris Evans 7 months ago

        Which tattoo artists specialise in Koi tattoos?

      • profile image

        TattooFiesta 9 months ago

        I love the meaning of White Koi, I always thought of getting that tattoo! thanks for sharing

        www.tattoofiesta.com

      • profile image

        Ed 11 months ago

        carlbea, white Koi can mean a lot of things but one of the most excepted is "intense love" or relationship.

      • carlbea profile image

        carlbea 18 months ago

        how about the white koi fish? what does it mean????? please anyone? i need to know... thank u

      • profile image

        carlbea 18 months ago

        how about the white koi fish? what does it mean??

      • profile image

        ken block 13 19 months ago

        i have a koi fish tattoo but i dont know the meaning of it, but now i know and i want to know it more.

      • profile image

        karolstar 19 months ago

        I knew about the legend I didn't know about the colors, I have my sleeve done with the names of my kids and the koi is on the top, face is in my shoulder, the koi is unfinished and now that I know red if for mother, I will paint mine in red, originally I wanted blue, now that I know the meaning, red is perfect!!! :) thank you so much for this.

      • profile image

        hiii234809 2 years ago

        koi tattoos are beautiful stuff for arms heyyyyy;;;;):););)

      • profile image

        Isadora 2 years ago

        I loved this article!

      • iggy7117 profile image

        Vince 2 years ago from New Jersey

        Good information, I knew Koi fish had meaning but now I know more about it. Being bread for particular colors was interesting.

      • profile image

        Coy Davis 2 years ago

        My name is coy so inherently I want to get a koi tattoo, being named after them (my father wanted to spell it koi but my mother said no) and being very very interested in them, plus the fact I feel like some of those traits of the fish and swimming up stream to goals no matter what resembles me very closely I've been looking to get a tattoo of one.

      • profile image

        David Ramirez 2 years ago

        I've had a a koi fish on my leg since i was 17 I didn't not research the meaning behind it very thoroughly I'm glad it is according to my being its upstream and its red :)

      • Rabadi profile image

        2 years ago from New York

        Never knew about this information very cool and nice to know! I'll share your page with others, check out my page when you get the chance :)

      • Jenn Mitchell profile image

        Jennifer Mitchell 2 years ago from South Dakota

        Very interesting! Love tattoos and have several myself. No koi, but I do have a catfish in honor of my dad :P. I will pass this information onto a friend who owns a tattoo parlor. She may already know, but if she doesn't, it will be good information for her clients!

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        This is a great hub. Real interesting to know about the koi fish and the symbolism behind it for tats.

      • profile image

        Diego 2 years ago

        Is it true that if yu get only one koi fish is bad luck?

      • profile image

        Kevin Goodwin 2 years ago

        The Koi Fish tattoo also has special meaning depend which way your Koi fish is directed. Hope your Koi Fish's head is not facing downward.

      • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

        Jonas Rodrigo 2 years ago

        Wow that was a very interesting and informational hub. I love the concept of yin and yang and balance and I think I'm gonna love koi fish too. Great hub!

      • profile image

        tiffany sims 4 years ago

        i have a tattoo of the koi fish on my arm that swimming then right by it is the dragon it turned into.

      • profile image

        MariaMelendez1985 MariaMelendez1985@gmail.com 4 years ago

        I am interested in learning more about koi tattoo!

      • profile image

        phutch 4 years ago

        I love this hub it really helped me pick the right tattoo for tat

      • profile image

        Fafner 4 years ago

        We have a koi pond and im planning to get a yin yang koi tattoo so your hub is cool.

        But "Yellow River in Japan"? the yellow river is in china.

      • StoneCircle profile image

        Susan McLeish 4 years ago from Rindge, NH

        Makes my next tattoo choice very easy except for finding an artist to bring the dragon koi to life. great hub!

      • eatpraylove profile image

        eatpraylove 4 years ago from Philippines

        We have a koi pond. Your hub is interesting.

      • oldiesmusic profile image

        oldiesmusic 4 years ago from United States

        Although I have no intention of getting myself tattooed, I still love your hub about koi, its legend (transforming it into a dragon), its color symbolism. Maybe I can show declare what kind of "koi" I am through a different representation. Nice hub :)

      • profile image

        olivia butler 5 years ago

        My boyfriend is planning on getting the yin and yang koi fish because he says it is representative of us. He says that I balance him by calming him when he is upset and that I balance the bad things that have happened with good.

      • poshcoffeeco profile image

        Steve Mitchell 5 years ago from Cambridgeshire

        Wow, I never knew about Koi's turning into Dragons legend.

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