Japanese Koi Tattoos

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 thing more fantastical than the array of colors that these fish have in the real world is 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.

Bleeding Koi Design

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

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.

From Sketch to Finished Tattoo

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Here is the line drawing of the koi tattoo, design by Bill Liberty.This picture shows the outline, with black shading and the beginning of the color.At this stage, all of the blue water has been finished.Here is Crystal's finished koi tattoo, now with all of the colors and shading done.
Here is the line drawing of the koi tattoo, design by Bill Liberty.
Here is the line drawing of the koi tattoo, design by Bill Liberty. | Source
This picture shows the outline, with black shading and the beginning of the color.
This picture shows the outline, with black shading and the beginning of the color. | Source
At this stage, all of the blue water has been finished.
At this stage, all of the blue water has been finished. | Source
Here is Crystal's finished koi tattoo, now with all of the colors and shading done.
Here is Crystal's finished koi tattoo, now with all of the colors and shading done. | Source

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 was 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

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Comments About Koi Tattoos 30 comments

Fortadam profile image

Fortadam 4 years ago from Portland Oregon

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

FrugalandFab profile image

FrugalandFab 4 years ago from New Hampshire

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.

davenmidtown profile image

davenmidtown 4 years ago from Sacramento, California

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 5 years ago

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 profile image

seousman 5 years ago from Pakistan

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

relache profile image

relache 5 years ago from Seattle, WA Author

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.

5 years ago

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 profile image

Descartes 5 years ago from grand prairie

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

taipan 6 years ago

im getting a koi tatt next week cant wait :)

butterfly Tattoo profile image

butterfly Tattoo 6 years ago from Dallas Texas

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

flowerpuff 6 years ago

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

wency5000 6 years ago

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

simplyjo profile image

simplyjo 7 years ago

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

Reynolds_Writing profile image

Reynolds_Writing 7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

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

muiomuio profile image

muiomuio 7 years ago from Portugal, Lisbon

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

taylorblue profile image

taylorblue 8 years ago from Canada

@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. :)

relache profile image

relache 8 years ago from Seattle, WA Author

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 profile image

Robinson Rex 8 years ago from Lowell, MA

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 profile image

ElatedState 8 years ago from Edmonton

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...

gamergirl profile image

gamergirl 8 years ago from Antioch, TN

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

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

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    relache profile image

    Raye (relache)4,003 Followers
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    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.

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