Making Prison Tattoos: Concept Art by Kurt Davis

Kurt Davis is best known as the drummer/vocalist for the Boston-based garage punk band The Konks – readers of this periodical are likely familiar with their song "29 fingers," which appeared in Rock Band. Davis also answers the phone at Harmonix, so if you were that guy who called to tell us you had just beaten ‘Painkiller’ on expert while a group of schoolchildren threw handfuls of tacks at you in a wind tunnel, it was probably Kurt who listened patiently to your story. But back in the day, Kurt Davis was also known for his meticulously creepy illustrations. 

Kurt Davis was among a handful of punk rockers who propped up the Indiana punk scene in the early Eighties.  He befriended the influential Midwest hardcore/punk outfit Zero Boys and in 1982 they chose one of his drawings for the cover of their debut album, Vicious Circle (which will be reissued by Secretly Canadian in 2009).  Although he never made a cent from it, the album was hugely popular in its day and the original vinyl now commands a hefty bid on eBay. “Most people don’t know about this part of my life,” Davis says in the lobby of Harmonix’s Central Square headquarters in Cambridge, “So I was really excited when Dare (Matheson, Lead Artist for Rock Band 2) asked me for some drawings for the tattoos and sticker art in the game."

“When I’m on the phone I draw these little sketches on any scrap of paper that happens to by lying around, and when I’m done I throw them in a drawer,” Davis says, spreading out a pile of tiny post-it notes, envelope flaps, and torn fragments on which he’s created a menagerie of flattened, foreshortened monsters, odd men, and cryptic symbols.  “Dare came over to my desk one day and asked if I had anything he could use and I just opened the drawer."

Davis and Matheson went through the pile and tried to tease out a theme among the sketches, which proved to be a bit of a challenge. “When I’m sketching I’m not thinking about a specific theme or style,” he says, “and so my sketches are sort of all over the place.  You couldn’t really look at these and say ‘this is a Kurt Davis. Except maybe if you were my wife."

Matheson selected a group of sketches he felt belonged together – a series of hasty thumbnails that were among the least polished in the collection.  “Dare was looking for drawings that looked like prison tattoos – he wanted drawings that were created with vulgar line elements, so that they looked like they’d been scratched into someone’s skin using a primitive tool. Or like something carved into a high-schooler’s desk.  Drawings that anyone could do.  So the sketches he picked out of the bunch just lent themselves to that aesthetic."

Some of these sketches, such as a gape-jawed Cro-Magnon skull and another of a monster with multiple eye stalks, went straight into the game. Others received more love. “Once we got going on the prison theme,” Davis continues, “I started thinking about a secret society. I’d been reading a book on Rosicrucianism and I wanted to create some really iconic designs that would suggests a kind of code language – a series of symbols that only a select group of people would understand." He points out some sketches of a pointing hand emerging from a cloud, an eyeball emitting twin plumes of smoke, and a flame emerging from the palm of a disembodied human hand.

The most bizarre sketch in Davis’s contribution to the tattoo designs in Rock Band 2 also features a hand – clutched in a man’s teeth.  “I drew that in my living room,” he says, pausing.  “I don’t remember why I drew that.  I think I just wanted to draw a picture of someone doing something inexplicable.  He’s biting a hand, but whose hand is it?  Is it his hand?  I don’t know.  Plus, he’s not angry.  It’s almost like he’s bored or in a trance. ”  He picks the sketch up to examine it more closely.  “All art is trying to reflect something but also to make meaning of the world around you. But part of the meaning is in the things that other people bring to it.  I don’t want to give people answers.  I want to leave it open ended. ”

Start your own secret society with Kurt Davis’s tattoo designs, available in Rock Band 2.  Prison term is optional.