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Koi Fish Tattoos Meaning: Color, Direction, and More

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Megan loves examining interesting tattoo designs and sharing them with others.

Find out the meaning behind koi fish tattoos of different colors and orientations.

Find out the meaning behind koi fish tattoos of different colors and orientations.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How a Koi Became a Dragon

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 100 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.

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.

The Meaning Behind Which Direction the Koi Is Swimming

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
Some of the different koi colors.

Some of the different koi colors.

The Meanings Behind Different Colors of Koi Tattoos

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 some of them mean.

Yin-Yang

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.

Dragons

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.

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.

Lotus Flowers

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.

Comments

Kenneth white on June 17, 2020:

I have a koi...

Charlie on April 13, 2020:

I am always been a fan of koi fish tattoos. Its intricate detail makes it more attractive to the eyes.

PTE in Dhaka from DHAKA on March 24, 2020:

Koi fish tattoo is one of my favourite.

Ralph Herrera on December 23, 2019:

I have been fighting with epilepsy since 2012. After a few years I finally was able to control about 80% hoping not to have another episode. So I am still in a battle and my life has changed because of it. What color type koi should i get Also swimming up or down and can I also incorporate lotus and cherry blossoms?.. thank you..

Trey funderburk on December 11, 2019:

I’ve struggled to get over this fake weed but I did it went to rehab and what color of koi should I get

Robert Craine on October 26, 2019:

I have a black koi swimming down stream. I have overcome a big problem with drink. I also have a lotus flower.

Misty Shamblin on October 18, 2019:

Im in the middle of getting my koi fish tattoo im glad i read all this now i can add some meaning to the art ive got

MC on October 16, 2019:

This was very informative!! Thanks so much!!

Rajansounder from Coimbatore on October 04, 2019:

Heard new things, wowo!!

John on August 28, 2019:

Just had a Koi tattoo to do a cover up on two tats, all black except to make the scales stand out, and the Meaning has so much meaning, I have the Koi swimming upstream Nate from euphoria tattoo here in Western North Carolina is the BEST.

Me on July 31, 2019:

Excellent atlrticle full of history, facts and clear explanations thank you

anonymous on July 11, 2019:

Thank you very much for the detailed research and explanations!

Dede on June 22, 2019:

Thank you! So much I have been looking and reading on the meaning of Koi Fish and I want to thank you for all that you showed me and let me read and to learn. Once again thank you.

Dede

Mike on June 03, 2019:

What does a coy fish swimming down a arm splashing water with three water ripples symbolizes?

Heath on April 01, 2019:

Does red represent mother of the family or shows u are a mother if u have red?

Jose J Almada on February 14, 2019:

great info for my future KOI tatoo

Neville on February 08, 2018:

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

Ken stitt on December 21, 2017:

Go to a traditional Japanese style artist. Ask around shops

Chris Evans on November 12, 2017:

Which tattoo artists specialise in Koi tattoos?

Ed on July 06, 2017:

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

carlbea on December 08, 2016:

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

ken block 13 on November 28, 2016:

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.

karolstar on October 30, 2016:

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.

jtrader on October 22, 2016:

Good resource for those pretty tattoos.

hiii234809 on February 25, 2016:

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

Alex Mavis on January 14, 2016:

Good article, I like it. I am thinking about koi tattoo, but I do not know what color to choose. I know that it is very important to choose the right color. Red is taken as an energetic color so the tattoo is typically an expression of masculine love. It can be used to represent love for a woman by a man or a woman can have one as a reminder of the strong love she has for someone or commitment to something – It is passionate. Black symbolizes great adversity, the black koi fish is used to represent adverse struggle to succeed. It can be a story of rags to riches, a symbol of surviving a battle and coming out alive. Whatever hardships one has to go through to get to the point they are now can be represented by this tattoo. Dragon Koi Tattoo. This is inspired by the Chinese Legend. The Dragon koi is usually yellow and is swimming upstream in the yellow river to transform into a dragon. This signifies a person striving to fulfil their destiny amidst the different obstacles. It is a bit like the black koi because there is a relation to adversity but it is also used to symbolize strength, courage, bravery to challenge the odds in order to create one’s own destiny and get reborn. It can serve as a symbol of rebirth. Like a woman who gathers the courage to leave an abusive marriage or an employee who leaves their job to try and set up their own business. It can also be used to indicate a new beginning after bereavement. Blue Koi Tattoo. Blue is usually associated with men but it can also be used as a symbol of reproduction. The blue fish design is associated, however, with a stage in dealing with adversity. If the blue Koi is swimming upstream in the tattoo, then it symbolizes a person who is currently going through some trials in their life and they are facing them boldly. If, however, the Fish is swimming down the stream, then the person has already dealt with the trials and is moving on with their life. Sometimes people may interpret the blue koi swimming down to mean that you have given up on something or someone. There http://tattoo-journal.com/30-breathtaking-photos-o... is another artiicle with pictures and some information about koi.

Isadora on January 09, 2016:

I loved this article!

Vince from New Jersey on December 27, 2015:

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

Coy Davis on November 14, 2015:

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.

David Ramirez on November 11, 2015:

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 :)

O from New York on November 01, 2015:

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 :)

Jennifer Mitchell from South Dakota on October 15, 2015:

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 from Northeast Ohio on October 07, 2015:

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

Diego on August 24, 2015:

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

Kevin Goodwin on August 02, 2015:

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 on July 12, 2015:

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!

tiffany sims on May 28, 2014:

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

MariaMelendez1985 MariaMelendez1985@gmail.com on May 09, 2014:

I am interested in learning more about koi tattoo!

phutch on March 23, 2014:

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

Fafner on February 28, 2014:

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.

Susan McLeish from Rindge, NH on January 19, 2014:

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

eatpraylove from Philippines on November 24, 2013:

We have a koi pond. Your hub is interesting.

oldiesmusic from United States on October 23, 2013:

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 :)

olivia butler on June 14, 2013:

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.

Steve Mitchell from Cambridgeshire on April 14, 2013:

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