LOCAL ARTIST Ron Ott’s “Chattanooga Mugshots,” a growing series of portraits of exactly that—embellished, sometimes highly stylized sketches of the recently arrested culled from the public archives—is quickly becoming a local media sensation. And Ott seems genuinely surprised at the reaction.
“I really just wanted to practice drawing,” says Ott in the quiet confines of Pasha Coffee & Tea in St. Elmo, where I recently found him doodling yet another face from the endless supply of characters that inspire the series. “I found the expressions on their faces—the anger, the surprise, the dramatic range of human expression—very interesting. There’s always a story behind the faces, the germ of a deeper narrative.”
That narrative drives Ott’s illustrations, which have quickly evolved from pen-and-ink portraits to often playfully embellished, poster-style pop art in just under two months. After a friend created a Facebook page to feature his work, Ott’s drawings have been featured recently in stories online (in Nooga.com), on the radio (on WUTC-FM’s “Around and About”) and last weekend in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Other media outlets have been in touch and are planning stories, he tells me as we chat about the series.
“I had shelved drawing for about 10 years, just focusing on earning a living,” the 33-year-old graphic designer says. “At the end of last year, I started wanting to draw again and began looking for material to practice.”
Ott found his muse in mugshots available in the public domain from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, the same cavalcade of faces seen weekly in Just Busted, the Red Bank-based publication that draws its raison d’ être from the plentiful well of the recently jailed.
Ironically, Ott had not seen Just Busted until recently and found the mugshots on Chattablocks.com, a website created by Ben Huffine that uses public data to create custom maps and reports by city block.
“They were just compelling images that begged for artistic representation,” Ott says.
His first portrait of Tommy Joe, an accused fugitive, is dated Dec. 12, 2011. The images found their way onto Twitter and then Facebook, where attention and interest quickly snowballed. To date, Ott has added more than 25 faces to the series, which he intends to collect and publish in book form later this year. The renderings have evolved just as rapidly, from pen-and-ink sketches to artfully designed poster-style images featuring the accused’s crimes in stylized lettering.
Working quickly, the formally trained artist and Vicksburg, Miss., native creates a finished portrait in less than an hour, often working in public spaces such as Pasha. Renovations at his home made working in his studio uncomfortable and Ott says he enjoys interacting with people as he sketches. He carries all his supplies in small, blue metal box and finishes the portraits in Photoshop.
The attention has given Ott pause and he is finding notoriety a double-edged sword. What was once simply practice, an exercise in honing his skills after years of neglect, has become the subject of scrutiny—from reporters and those who know the subjects, one of whom recently died—and the artist finds himself in the position of having to explain, and in some cases defend his work.
“Are they exploitative?” he asks aloud. “I’d like to think they’re more redemptive.”
Then there is the inevitable question I refrained from asking, but one he answered during his TFP interview: Were he to be arrested would he render add his own portrait to the series?
He told the paper he would, but I can’t imagine he’d be much more surprised than how he appears in the self-portrait he offered me.
See Ott’s portraits online at Facebook.com/ChattaMugs.