A majestic red koi by Johan Svahn (IG—johansvahntattooing). Irezumi Japanese JohanSvahn koi traditional

Pass through The Dragon’s Gate with These Inspiring Koi Tattoos

How koi became one of the most common and meaningful figures in traditional Japanese tattoos.

nicole in Tattoo Ideas

Much like the lily-pad-spotted ponds that call home in real life, the world is teeming with traditional Japanese tattoos of koi. There are probably more Irezumi depictions of these fish than of any other motif, dragons, hannyas, and cherry blossoms included. While tons of collectors have these graceful and hearty animals tattooed on their bodies, not everyone knows what they symbolize and the long story behind their popularity.

A black koi swimming upstream by Rodrigo Melo (IG—rodrigomelotattoo). Irezumi Japanese koi RodrigoMelo traditional
A black koi swimming upstream by Rodrigo Melo (IG—rodrigomelotattoo). #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #RodrigoMelo #traditional
A majestic red koi by Johan Svahn (IG—johansvahntattooing). Irezumi Japanese JohanSvahn koi traditional
A majestic red koi by Johan Svahn (IG—johansvahntattooing). #Irezumi #Japanese #JohanSvahn #koi #traditional

Koi haven’t always been such important icons in Japanese culture, they aren’t even native to the country. People started importing them from China over 2000 years ago because of their ability to survive being transported long distances and dependability as a renewable source of food, and the myths about these fish came along with them.

A pair of black koi by Horitada (IG—horitadajapan). Horitada Irezumi Japanese koi traditional
A pair of black koi by Horitada (IG—horitadajapan). #Horitada #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #traditional
An extremely detailed depiction of a koi by Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace). Horitomo Irezumi Japanese koi traditional
An extremely detailed depiction of a koi by Horitomo (IG—horitomo_stateofgrace). #Horitomo #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #traditional

The most famous story about koi is that of Dragon’s Gate on the Yellow River. The legend goes like this: every mating season carp gather, swimming upstream through the powerful current to reach their spawning pools. Near the river’s source, there’s a giant waterfall that only the strongest and most persistent fish can scale. While most of the koi give up, exhausted, a select few make it past the threshold and are transformed into dragons for their valiant effort.

Recent from Tattoo Ideas

A pair of koi sleeves by Chris O'Donnell (IG—codonnell_nyc). ChrisODonnell Irezumi Japanese koi traditional
A pair of koi sleeves by Chris O'Donnell (IG—codonnell_nyc). #ChrisODonnell #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #traditional
A beautiful sleeve featuring two koi by Chris Garver (IG—chrisgarver). ChrisGarver Irezumi Japanese koi traditional
A beautiful sleeve featuring two koi by Chris Garver (IG—chrisgarver). #ChrisGarver #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #traditional

Due to their natural beauty and the profound folklore surrounding koi, they have been depicted in Japanese art ever since the Edo period, mainly as ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), but as keeping the fish as pets rose to prominence and tattooing was legalized in Japan during the 20th century, Irezumi became the primary breeding ground for them in the arts.

A lovely pink koi by Jill "Horiyuki" Bonny (IG—jillbonny_studiokazoku). Irezumi Japanese JillHoriyukiBonny koi traditional
A lovely pink koi by Jill "Horiyuki" Bonny (IG—jillbonny_studiokazoku). #Irezumi #Japanese #JillHoriyukiBonny #koi #traditional
An intricate depiction of a koi by Regino Gonzales (IG—rg74). Irezumi Japanese koi ReginoGonzales traditional
An intricate depiction of a koi by Regino Gonzales (IG—rg74). #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #ReginoGonzales #traditional

In tattoos, koi can be symbolic of a number of things, especially depending on their color. Black koi can be read as emblems of strength, while gold ones are representative of good fortune and prosperity. Regardless of their respective colors and their meaning, though, all of these fish embody empowering notions of self-improvement, transcendence, and living life to the fullest.

Kintaro riding the giant koi by Caio "Horikai" Pineiro (IG—caiopineiro). CaioPineiro Irezumi Japanese koi traditional
Kintaro riding the giant koi by Caio "Horikai" Pineiro (IG—caiopineiro). #CaioPineiro #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #traditional
A golden koi in progress by Baek Woon (IG—baekwoon_tattooer). BaekWoon Irezumi Japanese koi traditional
A golden koi in progress by Baek Woon (IG—baekwoon_tattooer). #BaekWoon #Irezumi #Japanese #koi #traditional

To see more large-scale Irezumi, make sure to visit these artists’ Instagram. Should you want a koi tattoo to she how perseverant you are, have one of them design it for you and turn your shoulder or nape into the Dragon’s Gate.

nicole

@Nicole Losey

I am a writer, digital artist and web designer residing in Asheville, NC. I enjoy all tattoo styles, but my favorites are the new watercolor style and realism. I love color and I really like artists that can make it come to life.

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