Japanese Koi Tattoos

Updated on March 7, 2018
relache profile image

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 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

Questions & Answers

    Comments About Koi Tattoos

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      • Fortadam profile image

        Fortadam 

        6 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 

        6 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

        David Stillwell 

        6 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.

      • profile image

        kendall 

        6 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 

        7 years ago from Pakistan

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

      • relache profile imageAUTHOR

        Raye 

        7 years ago from Seattle, WA

        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.

      • profile image

        7 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 

        7 years ago from grand prairie

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

      • profile image

        taipan 

        7 years ago

        im getting a koi tatt next week cant wait :)

      • butterfly Tattoo profile image

        butterfly Tattoo 

        8 years ago from Dallas Texas

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

      • profile image

        flowerpuff 

        8 years ago

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

      • profile image

        wency5000 

        8 years ago

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

      • simplyjo profile image

        simplyjo 

        9 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 

        9 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

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

      • muiomuio profile image

        muiomuio 

        9 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 

        10 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 imageAUTHOR

        Raye 

        10 years ago from Seattle, WA

        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 

        10 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 

        10 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

        Kiz 

        10 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.

      • relache profile imageAUTHOR

        Raye 

        10 years ago from Seattle, WA

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

      • trakker14 profile image

        trakker14 

        10 years ago from franklin

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

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

        Patty Inglish MS 

        10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

        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 profile image

        taylorblue 

        10 years ago from Canada

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

      • Volatto profile image

        Volatto 

        10 years ago

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

      • relache profile imageAUTHOR

        Raye 

        10 years ago from Seattle, WA

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

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

        Patty Inglish MS 

        10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

        What lovely artwork! Is it expensive?

      • taylorblue profile image

        taylorblue 

        10 years ago from Canada

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

      • relache profile imageAUTHOR

        Raye 

        10 years ago from Seattle, WA

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

      • taylorblue profile image

        taylorblue 

        10 years ago from Canada

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

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