Koi Fish Tattoos – the History and Symbolism Behind the Colors

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Koi fish tattoos are often very intricate and detailed and are usually the central character in Japanese tattooing. These beautiful creatures, mean carp in Japanese and are usually representative of overcoming life’s obstacles.

Chinese and Japanese mythology has a story of the koi which made this fish a symbol for strength and perseverance.  It states 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. When it reached the Yellow River, there was 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.

Koi Fish Tattoo Meaning

Basic Meaning

Koi fish tattoos typically symbolize courage, good luck and fortune.  A Koi tattoo is often chosen by those that want to showcase their personal strength or perseverance through difficult situations. The specialty of Koi fish is that it can swim against the current, this is another representation that signifies determination and steadfastness which are much sought after characteristics.

Beliefs about the meaning and direction a koi fish is swimming vary greatly, but here are a few commonly accepted meanings that relate to their orientation.


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.


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.

Meanings of Different Colored Tattoos

The Red Koi – Symbolizes love and exuberance. 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.

red koi tony otto
Tattoo By: Tony Otto

Black Koi – The black koi is the symbol of the father. It is commonly 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.

Jess Yen black koi
Tattoo By: Jess Yen
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