Why a Koi Tattoo?

By: leelefever on May 27, 2006 - 6:36pm

My decision to get a tattoo, and specifically Koi tattoo, was not something that I took lightly and I wanted something with lasting importance. For me, nothing is more symbolic than a Koi.

  Throughout my life, these fish have played a significant and enduring role through my family’s business of breeding and raising high quality Koi and goldfish for the US market.  Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery was founded by my father in 1958.

Yes, I grew up the son of a fish farmer.  The way some grow up milking cows, herding sheep, growing rice or baling hay, I grew up breeding, counting, feeding and packaging millions of fish on a goldfish farm in Kernersville, NC, USA.  Just outside of the house where I grew up are fields of water (ponds) used for growing Koi and goldfish.  As a kid, my friends and I would ride motorcycles around the farm and on more than one occasion, our motorcycles ended up at the bottom of a Koi-filled pond.

As a teenager, I would drive a cargo van filled with boxes of live fish in water to the airport for shipment all over the US.  Let me tell you, a vehicle full of water is difficult to keep between the lines as the water sways back and forth.  Conversations over dinner were often dominated by talk of raising, selling and breeding Koi (which bored me to death as a kid).  These fish were as much a part of my life as going to school, skateboarding with my friends or eating chocolate chip cookies.


In the 1980s and 90s, Blue Ridge became one of the nations largest and most successful breeders of domestic Koi, selling millions of fish a year.  Also in that time, my father, uncle and brother introduced a new type of Koi to the market called the Butterfly Koi (above), which is marked by long flowing fins.  Now, all over the world, these fish are bred and sold under the name “Butterfly Koi” and my brother Randy is the person that gave them that name.  This development increased the success of Blue Ridge and likewise, our family’s contribution to the history of the Koi. 

From my personal experiences, Koi have come to symbolize family, innovation, prosperity and strength.  And so, I have chosen to mark my skin with the image of a Butterfly Koi, in the country where the Koi breeding originated (Japan) and on a place on my body where the Koi will always be close to my heart. I cannot imagine anything more appropriate for me and my arm.


See also:  So, I Got a Tattoo 

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So, I Got a Tattoo

By: leelefever on May 27, 2006 - 6:18pm

 Japan seemed like the perfect place for me to get the most durable souvenir I could imagine- a tattoo.  I’ll talk about why I choose a Butterfly Koi soon, but for now I want to describe the process.

  I had been considering a tattoo for many years and have a few designs stashed away should the inspiration hit.  Upon arriving in Japan, I learned about the history and style of tattoos in Japan and thought it would be perfect timing.  The inspiration had hit. 

In a modern-history nutshell, the Japanese government used to tattoo prisoners, which led to tattoos being a symbol of criminals (perfect! I know).  In the 18th century, released prisoners would seek out an Irezumi-shi –a Japanese tattoo artist who could cover their criminal past with new tattoos.  The Japanese Irezumi style evolved from this past and is now considered the most artful in the world.  Visiting dignitaries like King George V had a tattoo placed on his forearm in 1881.  It helps too that Japan (and her tattoo studios) are very clean and responsible.

I cannot claim that my tattoo is in the Irezumi style, as it lacks color and is not elaborate or intricate.  After resigning myself to the event, I spent a lot of time on the design, taking inspiration from these two pictures among others. 

(The artwork on the right is by Barbara Psimas

My goal was to get a small tattoo placed on the inside of my right arm and high enough that that tattoo would not peek out from under a short shirtsleeve.  Here are the drafts, including the final one in the middle.

I took these drafts to a 5pm appointment at Chopstick Tattoos in Osaka on May 25th. There, I met the no-english-speaking Magoshi, the artist.  I have to say it is a bit daunting to work with a tattoo artist who does not speak your language and I don’t recommend it.  However, I was able to communicate through an English speaker and Magoshi produced a sketch that was an improvement on my own work and would provide the template for what would appear on my arm. I guess art is indeed universal


Before I knew it, Sachi and I were in a clean room and he was going at it on my arm.  For those that may have been confused, this video is of me reacting to the pain of the tattoo (I didn’t know Sachi was recording it). 

The pain wasn’t negligible, but it wasn’t excruciating either.  I have to say, like many do, that there is a bit of pleasure in the pain.  What freaked me out a bit was looking over at my skin after Magoshi had done the shading and seeing every pore leaking a tiny spot of blood. I could have done without seeing that.

 It took less than an hour and we left with a bandage on my arm covering my new souvenir and a smile.  It turned out even better than I expected and I have no regrets whatsoever.  I would like to say that I’m glad that I made this decision as a 32 year old man and not a 20 year-old college student.  I feel supremely confident that, at 32, I have the maturity and outlook to proceed with such a long-lasting decision with full awareness of the consequences.  Nevertheless, I’m sure my parents and in-laws are both ecstatic.

See also:  Why a Koi Tattoo? 

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