Krampus tattoos are a perfect inspiration when thinking about Christmas tattoos. Krampus is big, mean, a little bit evil, and surprisingly festive. His heritage can be traced to 17th century Bavaria. He is a monster with roots in folklore coming out of Germany’s Black Forest, and while Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus is portrayed as a jolly, old, large man dressed in red, bringing joy and laughter to children everywhere, Krampus is pretty much the exact opposite.
The name ‘Kramus’ comes from the German word, ‘krampen’ which means claw. According to legend, Krampus also has his origins in Norse mythology. He is the son of the mighty Goddess, Hel, giving him some undeniable demonic street cred. While originally coming from Norse mythology, Krampus is a figure most closely associated with Germanic folklore. Almost every village in Southern Germany has its own legends surrounding the clever devil. In some he is more man than beast, with only his cloven hooves betraying him. In others he is basically a huge furry demon, standing well over 6 feet tall, black rams horns curling out of a thick dark brown/black furred head, forked tongue flicking between bared fangs.
Some of the features Krampus is endowed with are undeniably close to Greek mythological creatures such as satyrs, and fauns, albeit a bit more evil. Appearance aside, Krampus tattoos are almost always depicting him as “the bad guy”. He is there to punish naughty children and act as a kind of deterrent for bad behaviour. In some stories his punishments are as harmless as a simple spanking, in others he’s more aggressive and carries wicked switches to beat children, and in others he carries a large basket to carry children back down to hell to torture. That last one’s the coolest legend, right? He also does his best to make sure those being visited don’t know it’s him coming. He copies Saint Nicholas and also carries bells in order to lull naughty children into a false sense of security. Smart, right?
While Krampus is the big demon on campus when it comes to scares at Christmas time, there are other European Christmas beings that are less than friendly. A few other notable Christmas creatures include Belsnickle; most well-known from a Christmas episode of The Office. Belsnickle (also from Germany) is much more human than Krampus, but still unfriendly. Belshnickle also visits children in early December, and brings treats for good children to reward good behaviour, and a whip to beat the naughty children.
France has an interesting character named Hans Trapp who again is a man rather than a demon. According to legend, Hans was a rich and powerful man in the 15th century, but was able to become so rich and powerful through his satanic worshipping and use of black magic and occult rituals. This led to him being excommunicated by the Catholic Church and banished to a forest where he lost his mind and attempted to murder and eat a lost child before he was struck by a bolt of lightning thrown by God. The Netherlands also have their own version named Zwarte Piet, or, Black Pete. This tradition seems to be the most controversial today as the character of Pete is always seen in blackface. He follows similar tropes to the others though, also carrying a switch and accompanying Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa Claus. So, if you're trying to do something a bit different from Krampus tattoos, check out the demons above for inspiration.
In the Western world today, Santa Claus visits children on December 24th. But traditionally Saint Nicholas visited households on December 6th for what is known as The Feast of Saint Nicholas. In this tradition children leave shoes outside their doors instead of stockings, and Saint Nicholas fills them with treats and presents. Krampus does his work during the night of December 5th, for what is known as Krampusnacht (German), Krampus night in English. Many of the legends have Saint Nicholas and Krampus doing their work side by side, making them more of a good cop, bad cop dynamic rather than enemies on either side of Christmas.
Krampus has made huge leaps in popularity in Germany and the rest of the Western world over the last 20 years, even getting his own movie “Krampus” 2015 by Michael Dougherty. Many people attribute this fairly sudden rise in popularity to a movement away from traditional Christmas celebrations. He's also the new cool guy at Christmas, not only getting his own movie but also some pretty fun Christmas special episodes on shows like American Dad, Scooby-Doo, Robot Chicken, and others. Krampus runs are now a popular event during the Christmas season in Germany (and some American cities), where adults dress up as the beast and join a parade of terror down the streets, searching for children to scare. In some cities this has turned into more of an excuse to drink in the streets and party whilst dressed as a demon, but whether or not you’re in favor of drunken men in costumes chasing people, you can’t deny the masks being cool as hell.
500 years ago the tradition was to wear wooden masks carved in grotesque facsimiles to scare the crap out of children. Of course today you can get all kinds of masks, mainly latex, online or from stores in person. But with the resurgence of the Krampus run, so to is the resurgence of crafting wooden masks, a skill which, years ago would be passed down from generation to generation. Some people fear that the popularization of Krampus will diminish his historical importance and take away his cultural relevance in Europe, but others feel the opposite. That having an alternative way to celebrate the holidays will actually help spread some cultural awareness and possibly bring to light some other pagan traditions that can be incorporated into modern day celebrations and perhaps these Krampus tattoos help prove that point.
It’s no wonder then that Krampus has been more popular also as a tattoo. Devil’s and ghouls from different cultures have long been an immensely popular theme for tattooing, and Krampus is no exception to this. In tattoo form Krampus is usually portrayed as quite demonic, and is often done as just a head. Some people really embrace the Christmas spirit with their Krampus tattoos and also go for extras like holly, snow globes, snow flakes, etc. American traditional, blackwork, and Neo-traditional seem to be the most popular styles to tattoo this beastly devil in, but whatever style you choose, you can’t really go wrong.
For more information on Krampus check out Monsters and Monstrosity in 21st Century Film and Television, by Cristina Artenia and Ashley Szanter as well as Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History, by Joe Perry.