The Koi – A cult tattoo and its prominence

When it comes to the Koi, almost everyone has probably heard about this fish. Whether you are a fan of fish studies or you might have noticed its popularity as a tattoo motive, Kois are having a cult status in today’s culture and not only in the Japanese one.

The Koi, short form for Nishikigoi, is highly appreciated for its colorful appearance and is loaded with symbolism too. 

How the Koi turned into a Dragon

Part of its popularity leads back to an ancient legend in which a group of Kois overcame the Yellow River of China.  They swam the river upwards, which required strength and perseverance. At the end of the river they faced a waterfall. Most of the fish turned around and went down the river again, lead by its flow. Only a few remaining ones stayed and tried to jump up the waterfall. Finally, one of them, the smallest one, was able to reach the top of the waterfall. The Gods rewarded him by turning him, a little Koi, into a golden dragon.
For all the 90s kids out there, here is short cross reference: do you remember one of the most popular Japanese games? Yes, correct! Even Pokemon uses this ancient legend. It took lot of hard work and perseverance to turn Magikarp into what? Exactly, Gyarados – a dragon – just saying.

Ukiyo -e


The subject of the Koi and many more motives blazed their trail from Chinese culture to the Japanese one. One of the most liked characters of Japanese folklore is Kintaro, a boy who is wrestling for example with a giant Koi.
The era of Ukiyo-e offers a variety of different wood printings representing this image. If you want to read more about the era of Ukiyo-e check out our article “The Rise of Irezumi in Japan”.

Full body tattoos got quite famous in Japan, because of the artist Ichiyusay Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861) and his illustrated book of 108 Suikoden. Over the centuries the illustration of the Koi developed in the world of Irezumi. Compared to our western World representation, the motives deviate a lot.

The Koi as a tattoo motive

From Japan straight into the heart of Berlin at Good Old Times Tattoo. As a tattoo motive, Kois are quite popular nowadays because they are fully loaded with symbolism. Coming back to the ancient tale, Kois stand for strength, perseverance, ambition and determination. Furthermore, it is used as a metaphor for luck and a long life because the life expectancy of a Koi goes up to 60 years. As a former status symbol of the Japanese aristocracy, it is also connected with wealth. Kois in general are connected with positive imagery.
Swen and Claudio have created some back pieces as an example of how a traditional Japanese Koi tattoo could look like. One is going upstream and the other downstream.

Your traditional Japanese Tattoo


A Koi swimming upstream is mostly connoted with autumn and therefore often depicted with maple leaves. It represents the ambition of facing upcoming challenges. Swimming downwards, the Koi is illustrated with cherry blossoms and linked to spring. A Koi going downstream can be seen as an image of successfully overcoming an obstacle.
These two opposing motives are a perfect symbiosis for two sleeves. They also work perfectly as two separate back pieces which can couple to one another.
Regards the coloring, keep in mind, that the different colors also have a separate meaning.
There are many different ways of creating your unique Koi Tattoo seeing the Koi is loaded with symbolism. This is the reason why the Koi is so popular and famous as a motive.

If you are interested in a traditional Japanese Tattoo hit us up at Good Old Times Tattoo Berlin. Swen, Claudio and Matteo will take care of you and your Tattoo idea 🙂 In case you would like to read more about traditional Japanese Tattoos or other topics let us know or check out the other posts. 

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