Koi Carp, rods and ink

Ever caught a specimen carp? You may feel the need to mark the achievement – but how?

A new carp rod? A framed photo of you and your catch? Or a traditional carp tattoo!

Before you choose a lasting momento of your amazing carp catch, take a look at the myths, meanings and mysteries of traditional Koi carp art.

Meaning of Koi

Koi Carp

The prized carp
Image: Shutterstock

In Japanese, the meaning of the word ‘koi’ is simply ‘carp’, and in the past would have referred to all wild and cultivated specimens.

Over the years though, the meaning has changed. Now the Japanese use the word Koi to describe the ornamental fish found in ponds, and Nishikigoi – brocaded carp – for the most brightly coloured varieties.

Body Art

Tattoo of a Koi Carp

Tattoos of Koi Carp are incredibly popular all over the globe
Image: Shutterstock

The Koi or Carp is famous in Japan and China for its ability to swim upstream. Tattoos of Carp therefore represent perseverance, determination and battles against adversity. The positioning of the tattoo is also important. A fish swimming down the body indicates that the individual is going through hard times. A Koi swimming upwards denotes a person who has already broken through barriers and overcome difficulties.

Chinese Myth

Carp in Chinese myth

Ancient Chinese legend
Source: Giuseppe Castiglione

Ancient Chinese legend tells of Carp swimming up the Yellow River, and that any Koi who succeeds in jumping up the falls at Dragon Gate is transformed into a water dragon.

In this respect, Koi have become synonymous with worldly advancement, riches and prosperity – another reason for the popularity of the design in tattooing.



Samurai warriors
Source: Watanabe Nobukazu

Carp are said to be so brave that when caught by fishermen, unlike lesser fish that flap and try to escape, the carp lies still on the chopping board, awaiting the knife without so much as a quiver. In this way, Koi Carp are connected to the ideals of courage long associated with Samurai warriors.

Boys’ Day

Koi Windstocks over Kitakami river

Boys Day festival – Koi windsocks
Image: Shutterstock

With all these positive associations, perhaps it should come as no surprise that in Japan, the Koi Carp is the emblem of the Boys’ Day Festival.

Celebrated on May 5th, this ancient feast is marked by pennants representing Carp, one for each of the boys in the family; the biggest for the eldest son and so on to the youngest.

Carp are a central part of the festival – their strength, bravery and determination an inspiration for Japan’s youth, and integral to promoting qualities of manliness.

So there you have it – beautiful tattoos, expensive goldfish, a symbol of masculinity; when all is said and done, a reason to get outdoors and enjoy some fishing!