The Symbolism Behind Koi Fish And Goldfish Tattoos


With their brilliant, eye-catching colors and interesting symbolism, koi fish and goldfish have become popular choices for tattoos.  

Sleeve koi tattoo @unitytattoogranada

The hardy goldfish – which was, at one time or another, a pet for many people – and the koi fish – a marine creature that has become a popular feature in many home ponds – are a lot more than just brightly colored fish that people enjoy looking at. 

Interest in these fish started many hundreds of years ago, and these river dwellers have interesting legends and symbolism that has followed them over the years and around the world and inspired many people over the centuries. 

Koi Fish Tattoo @k_randall_carl

Koi fish represent strength of character, perseverance, accomplishment, and courage, while goldfish symbolize wealth and good luck.

The History Of Koi Fish

While koi fish feature significantly in Japanese culture and traditional tattooing, the fish originally came from China and is a type of carp – “koi” is the Japanese word for carp.

The fish was brought to Japan from China, and there the fish flourished. As time went on, the fish were bred to create the brightly colored koi species we know today.

Sleeve koi tattoo @fuji_stateofgrace

According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, the koi that feature prominently in today’s ponds dates back to early 19th-century Japan where wild, colorful carp were caught, kept, and bred by rice farmers.

So, how did this carp of humble origins become a symbol of courage? It is a story of bravery, tenacity, and unwavering self-belief. 

Watercolor Fish Tattoo
Watercolor Koi Tattoo @zajawatattoo_gda

How A Koi Fish Turned Into A Dragon

There is a reason why koi fish are symbols of perseverance and strength of character. It comes from one koi fish that refused to give up in the face of adversity and even the mocking of demons. 

A school of koi was once swimming against the current along a stream. At the end of the stream, they reached a waterfall. At this seemingly impossible to overcome obstacle, the school turned back – all except for one brave koi.

It continued to leap for 100 years in an attempt to reach the top of the waterfall. It kept falling back, and it kept getting mocked by a group of demons that were intrigued by its efforts. 

Small Koi Tattoo @_sluttypotato

Leaping from the depths of the river, it attempted to reach the top of the waterfall to no avail. Finally, after a century of jumping, the koi reached the top of the waterfall. Recognizing its perseverance and determination, the gods turned it into a golden dragon, the image of power and strength.

It’s not just because of its perseverance even in the face of demons that this fish has its reputation for courageousness, according to Tat Ring,

“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.”

Lotus Koi Tattoo @malobita

While koi symbolize achieving your dreams and continuing to persist, the meaning behind a koi fish tattoo can depend on the color. 

The Meaning Behind Different Colors Of Koi Fish Tattoos

As the koi fish of the legend turns into a golden dragon, it stands to reason that gold and yellow are popular color choices when getting this tattoo. This color koi represents wealth, prosperity, and good fortune.

On the other side of the color wheel, a blue koi fish represents peace and serenity. Bangkok Tattoo Studio 13 expands on this,

“The blue koi fish is often associated with masculinity and fertility. A symbol for the son of a family.”

Dainty Koi Tattoo @honeyb_fineart

Another popular color choice for a koi tattoo is red, which can carry many different meanings from motherhood to bravery to passionate love.

If you don’t want a colorful koi fish design, do not worry – this fish is extremely striking in black, plus it has strong symbolism. As The Trend Spotter explains,

“The black koi is associated with adversity and strength. It is appealing to someone who has overcome hardship in their past, whether that be depression or a difficult relationship.”

Not only does color have an impact on the meaning of your tattoo, but where it is heading, too.

Koi Dragon Tattoo @gato___x

Which Way Is Your Koi Going?

There are some meanings behind the direction of your koi fish tattoo. While this varies, you can choose the meaning you feel most applies to you. 

According to Tat Ring, if your koi fish is depicted swimming upstream, then you are

“currently in a battle or struggle and are still fighting obstacles but won’t give up”.

It could also mean that you have gotten over your obstacles and have now gained the strength and power you need to continue swimming against the current.

Handpoked Tattoo @freckle.handpoke

If your koi fish tattoo is swimming downstream, it could mean that you don’t yet have the strength to make it against the obstacles in front of you and move towards the success you seek.

On the other hand, it could also symbolize that you have already achieved your goals, you’ve at the top of the waterfall, and you no longer have to continue fighting the current.

There is another type of fish that serves as fascinating tattoo inspiration: the modest goldfish.

The History Of Goldfish

Now a common pet, goldfish have an interesting history and symbolism powerful enough to inspire people to permanently enhance their skin with this fish’s likeness. 

With their eye-catching hues and flowing tails, it is little wonder why people in China and Japan decided to breed goldfish. 

Bright Goldfish Tattoo @zihee

This member of the carp family, making it a cousin to the brave koi fish, actually started as a food source in China.

“In about the ninth century, goldfish mutants, when captured by fishermen, were not eaten and [instead] released into Buddhist ponds of mercy in an act of fang sheng, or mercy release. The monks fed and kept them, so the fish were protected by not being in the open waters. Releasing an animal into such a pond of mercy was an act of self-purification, a good deed in the Buddhist religion, which becomes even better if the animal is rare, like a goldfish versus a common carp,”

Anna Marie Roos in National Geographic

Related Post: Buddha and Aum/Om Tattoo: Symbolism and Meaning

After being domesticated in China over 1,000 years ago, they were brought to Japan in the 1500s. 

Goldfish Tattoo by Vlada Shevchenko

In Japan, the color of these fish was a big drawcard, as Kathryn Tanaka, an associate professor in the department of Cultural and Historical Studies at Otemae University in Japan, told BBC,

“The ideal color was a vermillion with a goldish glint, and in Japan this color combination was doubly lucky: the gold represented wealth, and the color red was used to dispel illness or misfortune.”

Goldfish are also used in the ancient Chinese practice of feng shui, the process of arranging the physical elements of your home to create balance with the natural world. In feng shui, adding goldfish to your home can attract positive energy. 

Detailed Goldfish Tattoo @tattoovalue.net

Berger Paints Color Magazine gives very specific instructions when it comes to your feng shui aquarium,

“Goldfish are known to represent prosperity and luck. Numbers and colors are important in feng shui, and it’s no different when it comes to your aquariums. The suggested number of fish in an aquarium according to feng shui is nine. The best combinations of nine fish in an aquarium are eight bright-colored goldfish or arowana fish and one black or darker colored fish. With the combination of eight red and one black fish, the fish symbolizes energy, prosperity, and good fortune.”

With this reputation, it’s little wonder why this fish became an amazing source of tattoo inspiration.

The Meaning Behind Goldfish Tattoos

Their golden appearance prompted a comparison with gold coins, and therefore with wealth and prosperity. As Ratta Tattoo explains,

“A gift of a goldfish can be construed as a wish for the recipient to become financially successful. In tattoo art, a goldfish can carry this monetary symbolism, but it is up to the wearer of the tattoo to decide if this is what the goldfish tattoo means to them.”

Watercolor abstract tattoo by Ivana Belakova

It’s not just monetary wealth that a goldfish tattoo can symbolize, but also mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Goldfish symbolizes prosperity, wealth, luxury, satisfaction, and happiness. It is believed that the goldfish is able to attract good luck and money. In Buddhism goldfish are associated with longevity and cleanliness of thoughts,”

500 Tattoos

There are many ways to approach getting one of these tattoos, one being incorporating other designs with the depiction of the fish.

Black and White Goldfish Tattoo @tattoobloq.com

Interesting Additions To A Koi Fish or Goldfish Tattoo

The symbolism and aesthetic of a koi fish goes well with lotus flowers. This flower also has an interesting story – it has to go through mud in order to bloom. This perseverance is a fantastic match with the koi that continued trying to get over the waterfall.

Related Post: The Significance And Symbolism of Lotus Flower Tattoos

Koi Fish Lotus Tattoo @samcrohn

Another flower option, especially if you want your tattoo to be a representation of Japanese culture (always do your research into the cultural significance of the tattoos you want to get) is cherry blossoms, or sakura.

This flower represents spring time and renewal, and, as the flowers only bloom for around two weeks, it can remind us of the fleeting nature of life and to be mindful of the present moment. This coupled with the positive connotations of a goldfish can make for a powerful tattoo.

Related Post: A Short Introduction to Floral Tattoos

Koi Flower Tattoo @saveberry24

If you are thinking about creating a tattoo featuring strong colors with your chosen fish along with flowers, a style of tattooing that creates whimsical and attention-grabbing designs is watercolor. The intense colors look as if they were put on your skin by a paintbrush. To read more about watercolor tattoos, click here.

If the thought of balance and harmony intrigues you, you may want to consider incorporating the yin yang symbol in your tattoo design. Developed over thousands of years in Chinese culture, the philosophy behind this internationally recognizable symbol is that there are two sets of opposing and complementing energies that can be observed in the world – the push and pull of duality.

Your two fish – goldfish or koi – can be tattooed in an everlasting push and pull, reminding you of feminine and masculine energy, dark and light, and the harmony of life. A popular color choice for this design would be one black fish and one white, to represent the yin yang symbol.

Yin Yang Koi Tattoo @thegallery_tattoo

The choice of two fish could also represent the Pisces zodiac sign. This star sign is represented with two fish – sometimes depicted as koi fish – swimming in opposite directions depicting the push and pull between fantasy and reality, hopes and fears. So, if you’re born between February 19th and March 20th (or perhaps if your moon sign is in Pisces) this could be an ideal tattoo for you. Click here to read more about astrology-inspired tattoos.

However, you cannot forget about the legend behind the mighty koi fish. 

As the story goes, the persistent koi fish was turned into a dragon by the gods; therefore, a fitting addition to a koi fish tattoo would be a dragon design. Whether you want to depict the koi fish turning into a dragon, or have the two beings separate, there are multiple ways to approach this powerful story. 

Detailed Koi Fish Tattoo @inkoutsidethefox

A koi fish or a goldfish tattoo is not just a design of an aquatic animal – there are intriguing legends and rich symbolism behind these creatures. It’s important to do your due diligence before getting a tattoo to truly understand the meaning behind the symbols you want to get permanently placed on your body.

For more important aspects to take into consideration so that you won’t regret your tattoo, click here.

Perhaps getting a koi fish tattoo won’t make you extra courageous, or a goldfish tattoo won’t necessarily bring you good fortune, but it may just serve as a beautiful reminder of what you can bring about for yourself if you persist in your attempts to get over that waterfall.

Foot Koi Tattoo @tattooist_keter
Koi Fish with Orchid Tattoo @geegeeruru

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