Politics

A Malden-native cartoonist and activist creates a very different kind of ‘Black Mug Shot’

"I don't want my kids, everytime they see someone that looks like them it’s in a mugshot."

Malden native Keith Knight has been a professional cartoonist for the last 30 years. With work ranging from syndicated comic strips and panels to kids’ books to a Hulu television show, “Woke,” the cartoonist’s career has been diverse, to say the least. But for the last month, his art has taken a truly unexpected turn.

His most recent work, called “Black Mug Shots,” is a website and social media hashtag that the cartoonist developed late last year which seeks to change the narrative around police mugshots and the Black community.

The project itself is very simple, centering on the social media hashtag #blackmugshots. Black participants post pictures of themselves holding mugs of any color, while participants of other races post pictures with black mugs. In a clever play on words, these pictures are collectively titled “Black Mug Shots.”

Knight began the project from a place of dissatisfaction at the narrative that the internet has created around the African-American community through police mugshots.

Advertisement:

The site mugshots.com, an aggregator for mugshots across the United States, is one website that profits heavily from the proliferation of mugshots on the internet. 

“‘Black Mug Shots’ came from my frustration with the proliferation of mugshots, especially of people of color, online,” Knight told Boston.com. “This perpetuation of every Black person that you see on the internet is in a mugshot is harmful.”

Cartoonists of Color:

One 2016 survey by Univision’s Fusion Network of 74 newspapers in the United States found that 40 percent of the papers published mugshot galleries. These galleries displayed mugshots and charges for newly-arrested individuals from the local area without any further context or follow-up.

Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and the renewed national discussion of racial injustice, some newspapers and police departments around the United States pledged to stop releasing mugshots of arrested individuals. Although there are examples of organizations stopping this practice, many websites in the United States continue to post the images.

Knight was deeply affected by such frequent displays of mugshots in papers and on their websites. So he decided to complain to his local newspaper in North Carolina.

“I went to a local news agency to complain and I said, ‘I don’t want my kids, everytime they see someone that looks like them [it’s] in a mugshot,’” he said.

Advertisement:

After some time, Knight decided to start the “Black Mug Shots” project. For the cartoonist, although this is not a typical cartoon, he considers this project as an extension of his work.

“Everything I do starts with my cartoons, and it started with a comic strip. Everything jumps from there. I’ve been a cartoonist for a very long time, but then I’ve done a lot of other stuff,” he said.

Knight initially billed the project as an effort to influence search algorithms around the term “black mugshots.”

“I say it’s to change the algorithm, but I know you can’t just go up against Google,” he said. “But I will say that when you look up ‘black mugshot’ there’s a picture of me with my mug shot amongst all the other real mugshots.”

The project, in the month or so it’s been active, has already accumulated approximately 225 posts from people all over the United States posing with their mugs. The site blackmugshots.com also compiles pictures of people who’ve participated in the initiative.

As explained by Knight, the project is a way to bring awareness to an issue that affects him at a personal level.

Advertisement:

“More than anything, it’s to shed light on the media’s reliance on these mugshots and how it hurts the people that are in those mugshots,” he said.

In the future, the cartoonist hopes to exhibit “Black Mug Shots” to highlight the experiences of people harmed by the practice of posting these mugshots, without context or follow-up.

“I’d love to take people who have had this experience of having their mugshot on the internet and be able to take a picture of them, with a mug,” Knight said.

More information on the project can be found at blackmugshots.com, at the Instagram account @blackmugshots, on Twitter at @blackmugshots, and by searching the hashtag #blackmugshots.