Are koi breeders artists or farmers?

No one would dispute that a pond full of beautiful koi is a living piece of art, but does this make a koi breeder an artist or a farmer? 

I was asked this question by a friend whilst driving between breeders on our 2023 trip to Niigata, Japan. He actually asked me the question directing towards myself, he said “ do you see yourself as an artist or a farmer?”. And that’s probably the first time I’ve been asked that question, and it took some time for me to process my response.

Me, sitting on a bench next to the main show pond at Yagengi Koi Farm in Niigata, Japan.
Here I am, sitting on a bench next to the main show pond at Yagengi Koi Farm in Niigata, Japan on my recent trip taking in the spectacular and inspiring scene. One of my favourite spots from the 2015 trip too.  Yagengi laying up a range of their best koi across multiple varieties in crystal clear water, and with a bench perfectly placed for anyone interested to rest and observe their work.


Much of my time is spent on the daily grind of running the farm, and on continually improving processes to help us produce greater volumes of the best quality koi. The remainder of my precious time is spent thinking about our breeding strategy or what qualities we want in the koi we produce so it’s easy to overlook what really motivates and drives me as a koi breeder.

After some lengthy consideration (and lengthy silence) I came up with an answer to the question, that felt absolutely right. And in this article, I’m going to take you through my thinking, and my views on the answer to the question , “Are koi breeders artists or farmers?”

Back in school, my artistic skills were very limited! But I’ve always been very creative, albeit with maths and problem solving. I’m surrounded by a creative family. My mother is creative in the more traditional way,(she did an Art degree). I also have two daughters who have a real artistic talent and are both working towards careers in the creative arts. Watching them go about their work and how their artistic processes flow, I’ve learned that creating a piece of fine art often requires significant practical and technical aspects as well as artistic skills. In order to create a work of art, an artist must not only have creative ideas and technical skill, but also the practical ability to execute their vision.

For example, a painter may need to understand the properties of different types of paint and canvas, and have knowledge of colour theory and composition, in order to create a work of art. A sculptor needs to have knowledge of various tools and techniques for working with different materials, such as clay, stone, or metal in order to bring their vision to life.  So while I naively thought art was primarily a creative and expressive pursuit, in fact the practical aspects of creating a work of art like planning and using time and resources effectively, are often crucial to its success and can be significant endeavours. A few common areas then between koi breeding and creating a work of art. Both contain practical skills as well as the artistic aspects of having a vision and spending time trying to get there.

Just as an artist creates a work of art by combining their creative vision with technical skills and practical considerations, a koi breeder combines their knowledge of breeding lines with practical skills in order to produce koi with desirable traits and patterns.  Like a painter selecting and mixing colours to achieve a desired effect, a koi breeder selects and breeds fish to create offspring with specific traits such as colour quality, pattern type, and body shape. And just as an artist must care for their materials and tools, a koi breeder must provide a suitable environment and proper care for their fish in order to ensure their health and development.  In both cases, the result is a creation that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but can also create an emotional impact.

But, as koi are often bred purely their value as ornamental fish, as well as for use in koi shows and competitions, does that mean koi cannot also be appreciated in the same way as a great piece of art?

Absolutely, koi can also be appreciated for their beauty and emotional impact. In fact, their ornamental value and popularity as a decorative pond fish is largely due to their striking and colourful appearance. We know there are hundreds of koi varieties, each one combining different colours, skin types, scale types and patterns. And those aspects make individual koi both mesmerising and awe-inspiring to look at. In addition, the sight of a school of shimmering, gracefully swimming koi can evoke a calming and relaxing, emotional experience. Moreover, I’ve seen for myself in the trips I’ve taken to Niigata, Japan that koi have a rich cultural history there and hold significant emotional significance for people who have a strong connection to what is very much a cultural heritage. So while koi do have practical value as ornamental fish, they are also loved for their beauty and emotional impact, and are a source of inspiration and enjoyment for koi enthusiasts.

Whether it’s a show standard koi or a koi enthusiast’s favourite “budget fish”, each fish will have its own qualities that will endear it to its keeper. Koi with imperfect patterns, unusual colours, or distinctive patterns can be just as striking and captivating as their more high-grade counterparts.  

The beauty of koi is not just in their appearance, but also in their behaviour and interactions with their environment. Watching koi swim and interact with each other and their surroundings is a fascinating and rewarding experience, regardless of the quality of the individual fish.  While there may be a hierarchy of koi quality and grading in the world of koi breeding and showing, I believe the appreciation of koi as a work of art is inclusive of all koi carp, regardless of their grade or individual characteristics.

 So what are the artistic principles that a koi breeder needs to draw up on to create their works of art?

While the very best koi may be the stars of a breeder's collection, they are still working towards producing as many high-quality koi as possible, and each fish is an important part of that process… which is very much the role of a farmer.

However the selection process is a fundamental part of the Japanese approach to koi farming and creates a hierarchy of quality among the koi produced by a breeder. Selecting fish that have the desired colours and patterns and then taking the best of these fish to go on and produce even better fish that are even more closely aligned to the dream very much requires both a technical eye as well as an artistic vision.

Lets try and narrow this down.  In many ways the koi breeder is both a farmer and an artist, using their creative vision and practical skills to cultivate and produce living works of art. The breeding of koi involves a delicate balance between genetic selection and husbandry, and the process of refining and improving breeding lines over time requires both aquaculture knowledge and artistic intuition.

So, are koi breeders artists or farmers ? I’ve come full circle since my early years and have learned how to apply my creativity to koi. Whilst I spend my time focussed on practicalities, improvements, and having a vision, it’s only now that I realise the journey I’ve been on and can say that I believe koi breeders are indeed artists, and that is now how I now see myself..  an obsessive artist, with a lot of hard work to do.

Written By:  Adam Byer, Koi Breeder

Edited By: Woody of @koi_in_the_uk (over on instagram), who provided invaluable feedback on the structure and clarity of the piece

Both Woody and myself were in Japan in February '23, and by chance, crossed paths one day at Maruhiro.  Here we both are, enjoying Maruhiro's famous circular show pond:

Woody and myself enjoying the scene at Maruhiro's famous circular show pond at his koi house in Japan.