Scales provide optical disguise, low water drag and mechanical protection to fish, enabling them to survive catastrophic environmental disasters, predators and microorganisms. The unique structures and stacking sequences of fish scales inspired the fabrication of artificial nanostructures with salient optical, interfacial and mechanical properties. Herein, we describe fish-scale bio-inspired multifunctional ZnO nanostructures that have similar morphology and structure to the cycloid scales of the Asian Arowana. These nanostructured coatings feature tunable light refraction and reflection, modulated surface wettability and damage-tolerant mechanical properties. The salient properties of these multifunctional nanostructures are promising for applications in (i) optical coatings, sensing or lens arrays for use in reflective displays, packing, advertising and solar energy harvesting; (ii) self-cleaning surfaces, including anti-smudge, anti-fouling and anti-fogging, and self-sterilizing surfaces; and (iii) mechanical/chemical barrier coatings. This study provides a low-cost and large-scale production method for the facile fabrication of these bio-inspired nanostructures and provides new insights for the development of novel functional materials for use in 'smart' structures and applications.