Getting a Bit Fishy: Koi Symbolism in Tattoo Art

by Lorna
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Koi Tattoos

Today is National Catfish Day, and it’s time for a celebration that’s literally for the fishes.  The American catfish is great for eating, but not so amazing or beautiful look at.  There are over 40 confirmed species in the US alone, and most of them are bluish gray, greenish brown, or brown in color.  The Japanese carp however, also called a koi fish, is far more interesting and pleasing to the eye.  The carp is a close relative to the catfish, and koi carp in particular are the subject of fantastic art the world over.

To the Japanese, the koi represents determination and perseverance.  Because of this association, koi ponds have grown to become the cornerstones of many culturally driven meditation practices, and meditating on the strength and ambition of this lively fish is said to afford those who undertake it with conviction, strength of purpose, and the pointedness to fulfill any goal for which they strive.  No wonder the koi has become such a popular symbol in both Eastern and Western tattoo art.

 koi fish jewelry, accessories, and tattoos

In American tattooing, the koi is most often depicted as being orange or golden in color, drawing a parallel to the North American gold fish, which is another of its cousins.  Although it retains the traditional Japanese meanings in many forms, a new set of ideals and modern symbolisms has also been attributed to this maverick water-dweller.  As popularized in the United States and Britain, the koi also signifies tranquility, fortune, and even luck when it’s drawn as being pointed upstream.

Some of these associations may come from a popular Asian fairytale that has reemerged in the midst of our current cultural resurgence.  The tale speaks of an ancient monument at the apex of a waterfall on the yellow River, and foretells that any koi who manages to swim upstream against the current and cross this landmark will be rewarded by being turned into a dragon.  The dragon is a powerful symbol of ancient knowledge and wisdom, good luck, and high fortune, and thus the monument itself is referred to as “Dragon Gate.”

 koi turning into a mystical dragon

Although no specific edifice or statuary has been officially recognized as the landmark from the story, there are waterfalls on the Yellow River still today.

by Lorna

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