published Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Police booking mugs turn extraordinary in hands of Chattanooga graphic artist

Ron Ott’s inspiration for a series of mug shot portraits sparked in December when he came across a lineup of Hamilton County mug shots online.
Ron Ott’s inspiration for a series of mug shot portraits sparked in December when he came across a lineup of Hamilton County mug shots online.

ELSEWHERE ONLINE

Visit chattamugs.com see more mug shot illustrations, and visit roneott.com to keep tabs on more of the artist's work.


DISCLAIMER

These images are based on booking mug shots and related information from publicly available Hamilton County arrest records. The subjects have not necessarily been convicted and should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Every person arrested has a fundamental moment of freedom before he's ushered to a holding cell. It is the freedom of expression -- the split second he makes a face while his mug shot is snapped.

Some take advantage of the freedom, sporting smirks or vengeful glares. Others gaze into the camera with dazed or defeated looks. Some appear confused, ashamed, angry -- or any combination of those.

The expressions in the photos are as varied as the people brought through the jail doors. Which is why graphic designer and illustrator Ron Ott has made them his models.

"You've got this very stark moment in time in which someone has been photographed with very little context and few clues about them. You've got the picture -- which may or may not be very flattering -- and it's just presented in this cold way," Ott explains. "But there's more to that person than just that photo, there's more to that moment in time. We don't know if they're guilty or innocent. We don't know the story."

Ott is attempting to "tease out" the stories in those faces in his new series of Hamilton County Jail mug shot portraits, an illustrative project he's dubbed "Chattamugs."

Some may argue that those accused of a range of offenses against society are the least deserving of intricate portraits of themselves.

Tambra Lynn Strange says that of her ex-boyfriend Edward Ragoonanan, 62, whose white-bearded face Ott rendered in one recent portrait that was almost mythic in its styling.

"Edward's a bad guy. He used me and abused me," Strange said of Ragoonanan, who is in the Hamilton County Jail on charges of vandalism, malicious mischief and public intoxication. "Why would someone want to draw him?"

But as Strange holds a copy of Ott's portrait of Ragoonanan up to the light, she peers closely at it and smiles a bit.

"That is just an excellent picture of him. It reminds me of the way he was before he went bad. He used to be a very nice man," she says.

Drawing out the depths of a person's face and hinting at his or her complex history is Ott's goal. He scans dozens of mug shots, not looking for anything in particular -- just seeing which faces strike him.

Sometimes it's a person's physical characteristics. But usually it's an expression. And usually, the expression is complicated -- more nuanced than just sad or just smug. Mug shots lend themselves to the "whole gamut of human expression," Ott said.

"With landscapes, what you see is what you get. With people, what you see is not what you get. There is a lot more there. And I think nowhere is that more evident than in a mug shot photo."

He pulls out an image of a man named Fred, whose face lacks any dominant emotion and yet is still full of character.

"Is he surprised? Is he upset? His face is really tight. It's not always clear, but I try to capture what's there."

Image maker

Ott's inspiration for the series sparked in December when he came across a lineup of Hamilton County mug shots online.

His eyes landed on the shot of a haggard, mustached man named Tommy Joe, a fugitive from Walker County. Something about Tommy Joe's tired stare piqued Ott's interest.

Ott had abandoned his "first love" of ink drawing in the years after college, but that night after his children were in bed, Ott rooted out two art pens that had been lying dormant for a decade.

He drew a portrait of Tommy Joe in half an hour, then inked it and scanned it into Photoshop, where he used digital painting tools to add color and dimension.

"It was this moment of synergy where all these things sort of clicked," Ott said.

He since has created a dozen other mug shot portraits, which have become increasingly popular -- Ott did an interview with a Knoxville TV station this weekend.

But at this point he's not trying to sell the portraits or turn them into T-shirts, though he's open to the idea of an exhibit or a book.

"I'm trying to be very conscientious about how I use the images of these people," he said.

Mug shots are public domain, and are widely available on websites such as the Times Free Press' Right2Know.com site. They're also plastered across popular "mug shot publications," like the locally circulated Just Busted.

Ott said he grapples with the fact that his models don't know he's drawing them, and the snapshots he's working with depict very vulnerable moments.

"There might be some voyeuristic element to it, but what I'm hoping to do is elevate this into art," he said.

He says his goal is to dignify the faces, not to glorify or shame them. He has never met any of his subjects and wonders what they'd think of the drawings.

"I know at some point someone is going to contact me and say, 'That's me!' or 'That's my cousin!' These are real people behind the faces."

Ott admittedly takes creative license in how he embellishes the portraits.

With one arrestee named Hayland, Ott works with a '70s disco font and playful hand lettering. The portrait of a sad, wistful-looking woman named Jessica Marie is flanked by roses. Others are more stoic or straightforward, like the portrait of Robert, who gives a cool stare with his one good eye.

Ott purposefully leaves out the subjects' last names, and tries to keep the lettering of their charges small.

He includes the charges because he thinks they help the viewer construct the narrative of the portrait. The accusations they face -- whether false or true -- affect the expression.

Despite his embellishments, Ott says he wants to avoid caricature.

"I'm genuinely interested in their faces. It's not like I'm trying to mock them or something, because I wouldn't want someone to do that to me."

So, does Ott have his own mug shot expression planned in case he gets arrested?

"I would probably be laughing because I know people who expect me to draw it," he says. "And I would."

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