This Artist Turned His Friends’ Graduation Pics Into Mugshots -- Here’s Why

'I felt like nobody really cared about us,' artist EJ Brown tells MTV News of his 'Mugshot' series.

The breaking point came two months ago when EJ Brown saw the footage of Walter Scott getting shot in the back by a police detective.

"I remember sitting in my dorm room and thinking, 'I need to do something ... if I don't do anything,' " the 25-year-old artist told MTV News about the mixture of rage, fear and confusion he felt that day. "I knew I needed to do something constructive but I was at a point where I was so upset that I couldn't work, I couldn't write essays, so I called my dad and I told him, 'My worst fear next to you dying, is you being a headline.' "

And with that, Baltimore native Brown launched the "Mugshot Series" on his Perception of Complexion tumblr, depicting a number of his friends in their graduation gear posing for mugshots while holding police station booking slates with their majors written on them.


Brown said he figured he might get a couple of Facebook likes, maybe some new visitors to his Tumblr. But instead, the recent Point Park University Cinema Production major has gotten international attention for his bold project, with offers from galleries and talks of expanding it in the near future.

"We had no idea it would blow up like this," Brown said, noting that his Tumblr logged more than 20,000 shares within the first few days he posted the images. "The idea came to me from how I was feeling as an educated black man in America. I felt like nobody really cared about me and nobody really cared about us."


Brown looked at the way Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting victim Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin had been portrayed in the media as "always guilty or a threat ... troublemakers or bad kids," and he recalled that one of the images of Mike Brown that he'd seen was of the teen in his cap and gown. "It wasn't his senior picture, but I thought, 'What if I take that same idea about calling out the media and police brutality and racism and show how successful we are?' But that no matter how successful we are for some people, it's still not good enough?"


So, he gathered seven friends and decided that he would show the greatness inside of them by having them in caps and gowns with their graduating majors on their booking slates. And, just to make a further point, yes, he knows "engeneering" is misspelled on Ryan Johnson's, but with good reason.


"I'm intentionally calling out policemen who abuse their power by trying to cover up their wrongdoing by tampering with the facts," he explained, "which leads to false accusations."

Like many men his age, Brown has felt the sting of being profiled and watched by police. He's been followed by cops all the way home, and he said several of the subjects in his photos have had similar incidents. "For me, I knew things like this were out there, but I'd never seen it," he said of the rash of recent incidents involving deadly encounters between young black men and police. "So when I saw it, I got really angry and I ran to art to express how I was feeling."


He wasn't sure how the project would be received, but one interaction he's had says it all. "A woman said her young son saw this and he 'wants to be like you guys and go to college.' That alone was enough for me to do this project."


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