The Koi – A cult tattoo and its prominence

When it comes to Kois, short form for Nishikigoi, almost everyone has probably heard of this fish. Whether you are a fan of fish studies or have noticed its popularity as a tattoo motif, Kois are having a cult status in today’s culture and not just in Japanese.

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 a 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 other motifs have traced the path from Chinese to Japanese culture. One of the most liked characters of Japanese folklore is Kintaro, a boy of superhuman strength who used to wrestle 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 motif, Kois are quite popular nowadays as they are extremely symbolic. Going back to the ancient tale, Kois stand for strength, perseverance, ambition and determination. Furthermore, they are a metaphor for luck and a long life as the life expectancy of a Koi goes up to 60 years. As a former status symbol of the Japanese aristocracy, it also connects with wealth. Kois in general are connected with positive imagery.

Your traditional Japanese Tattoo


A Koi swimming upstream mainly connotes autumn and therefore often related to maple leaves. It represents the ambition of facing upcoming challenges. On the opposite, when swimming downwards, it connotes spring and relates to cherry blossoms. A Koi going downstream represents the image of successfully overcoming an obstacle.

These two opposing motives are a perfect symbiosis for two Japanese tattoo sleeves. They also work perfectly as two separate back pieces which can couple to one another. As for the coloring, keep in mind that the different colors also have a separate meaning.

If you’re interested in getting a traditional Japanese tattoo, then you’ve come to the right place. Swen will personally take care of you and create an outstanding custom tattoo design 🙂

If you want to book an appointment use our contact form to reach out to us. Looking forward to creating together your own Koi tattoo 😉

Your Good Old Times Tattoo Team

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