Defender Picks

Playing Koi

Have you looked down at a sidewalk and noticed a trio of koi fish stencilled on the concrete? For almost a decade, artist Jeremy Novy has been painting these fish across the country, including New Orleans. The artist took some time to explain the meaning behind the popular installations.


People have asked me for years what is the meaning or purpose of the koi I stencil on sidewalks across America. Well the answer may be simple but it has a lot of meanings both to me as a person and to the symbols of harmony, strength, good fortune, friendship, success, prosperity, longevity, courage, ambition, and perseverance.


In 2006, while finishing my last art degree in Photography, at Pecks School of the Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had the opportunity to travel around china for three months to study ancient and contemporary art. Being in China definitely had a hug impact in how I think about my art. I saw communist propaganda art and images used to persuade the masses. I had already received a graphic design degree and knew how branding and subliminal imagery worked but I saw it in a different light after seeing a communist propaganda art collection in Shanghai. Communist propaganda art controlled the masses and told millions of people how to think. They used street art mediums like stencils and wheat pasting to bring these images to public spaces around China. For good or bad peoples way of thinking was changed. That was what I wanted my art to do. Make people think differently.  


While I was looking at communist posters I also was looking at Chinese scrolls and learning the different hidden messages and iconography that are under the surface of the koi image. The koi symbolize several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life. The koi has a powerful and energetic life force, its ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream. Other symbolism of the koi includes, good fortune, success, prosperity, longevity, courage, ambition, and perseverance. The number of koi also symbolizes a different and unique message that correlates with the Chinese lucky numbers. During the time of the cultural revolution the ancient ways of thinking and symbols where to be literally destroyed to make way for a new modern China. 


One symbolizes strength, courage, overcoming obstacles, friendship, good fortune, success, and longevity. Two is a symbol of double happiness or good things come in pairs. It is often used in wedding decorations for a happy life in marriage.  The word three sounds like the word birth and represent the three stages of life. Said to be birth, marriage and death.  Four is an unlucky number. In Chinese the word four sounds very much like the word death and for that reason four is never used in china for several things including placement of four objects.  Five has two meanings; first it symbolizes transformation as it took the emperor five arches to walk through to actually get to the Forbidden City. There are four walls surrounding Beijing. Each wall has more levels of security, where the very last arch would be the Forbidden City doors making the five arches.  The second meaning has to do with the five elements of the universe. Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Metal. China realized early on that a metal fell from the sky in the form of a meteoroid. While we have the four elements of earth in western society china has chosen to include the universe as a fifth element, metal. Six is a symbol for business relationships, and sounds like the word flow in terms of wealth. While seven is for more personal relationships like with friends, family and neighbors. Eight sounds like the word prosper or wealth and symbolizes good fortune, which is often used in new business to help generate wealth. Nine historically has to do with the emperor; it is believed that the dragon has nine children. It also symbolizes harmony.


You may not think my koi make people think differently if you compare it to communist propaganda art but it does. It makes people smile and enjoy a section of gray, grime-covered section of sidewalk. The surfaces we use every day but give little thought or care in its appearance as long as it’s level. 


On a more personally level I have a large birthmark on my forehead. Koi are born with birthmarks, not patterns like other animals. It is these birthmarks that make them highly prized and expensive fish. We all have several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life and I have had my share as most artists do. The koi has a powerful and energetic life force, its ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream. I may not be able to swim against all currents but I do blaze my own trails. And this is why I keep stenciling koi 9 1/2 years later.


Novy's work can currently be seen Arabella Casa di Pasta (2258 St Claude Ave.)

Jeremy Novy is an American street artist, known for painting swarms of koi fish on the sidewalks of San Francisco. His mission is to make his city a better place for living, by creating public art, available to everyone. Apart from that, he is known as a pioneer of queer street art, who uses his stenciled works to explore political and social issues. His goal is to make a social change and make queer-oriented street artist more visible by bringing gay imagery into the predominantly heterosexual, and often homophobic, street art culture. His stenciled artworks include drag queens, care bears and shirtless men.For more information about the artist, check out the website.


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