As a tattoo artist we’re constantly evolving and fine tuning our craft. Much like fishing our technique and style gets stronger with experience. Our knowledge of the waters and navigation of design becomes second nature. My whole career there has been one particular theme that has been a constant in my arsenal of tattoo design work. It has both inspired and eluded me many times.
The concept that I’m always chasing is the Japanese Koi fish tattoo. The “nishikigoi.” I have studied masterful renderings and spent hours in real life observing and committing their shapes and nuances to my mind. It’s basically a beautiful glorified carp raised to have incredible colors and patterns on their skin. It’s viewed as a symbol of strength, determination and good fortune.
The history of Koi fish design usually revolves around their waterfall legends. The classic ancient tale tells of a huge school of golden koi swimming upstream through the Yellow River. They gained incredible strength on their journey by fighting against the current. As a group, they glimmered in unison as they swam energetically through the water. At the end of the river they reached the Great Waterfall where many of the koi turned back in weakness, letting the flow of the current carry them away.
The strong and determined koi refused to give up. They leaped from the depths of the river attempting to reach the top of the waterfall. Over and over they jumped from different angles and approaches but to no avail. Their efforts caught the attention of local demons, who mocked their efforts and heightened the waterfall over and over out of malice. After a hundred years of jumping, the first of these great koi finally reached the top of the waterfall. The gods recognized the nishikigoi for its perseverance and determination and turned it into a Golden Dragon, the ultimate image of power and strength.
Because of the waterfall legend, koi are known as symbols of strength and perseverance, as seen in their unwavering determination to get upstream. They can also symbolizes a major accomplishment or a destiny to fulfill. Putting it in skin has given many tattoo collectors the strength and inspiration to holdfast on their path to their goals and dreams.
With the legends and history in mind, designing and tattooing koi fish have been some of my favorite imagery to work with. It seems that many times I felt I found the secret technique or design flow and drew a perfect koi. Then, months later I’d be inspired to do something even better or more exciting. It’s as if art in general is fighting up stream through the waterfalls and at every level achieved we get a sense of calm and easy flowing water. Shortly after the desire to climb one more waterfall overcomes and we have to head upstream one more time.
There have been many Golden Dragon moments in my tattoo designs and I am proud of every koi fish I have tattooed. Well, almost.......There is this one that haunts me but I’m proud of all the designs on the floor that didn’t make the cut too. Those designs are the strength and foundation of all my work today. Just like many aspects of our lives, sometimes it takes us 100 sketches to get over a great waterfall.
And still I can’t wait to chase the next one.
By: Sierra Colt
Fin & Ink