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Whether you’re a legendarily vain plutocrat surrendering to authorities after being charged with multiple financial felonies, you’ve stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, or you got popped in Rochester with a bag of weed, you should always try to to look your best in your mugshot.
Mugshots are meant to help police identify you in the event that you commit future crimes, but they can also be a keepsake of the time you got arrested on some bullshit. They’re perfect for framing or printing on a t-shirt, and since they’re often publicly available to anyone who asks, they might be linked with your name online for eternity, so you gotta look your best.
Serious advice about mugshots for normal people
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If you’re a politician, entertainer, or some monstrous hybrid of both, your mugshot is a public relations exercise. A lot of people are going to see it, and it will have some effect on your career and your public image.
Regular people who are arrested have different concerns, like not standing out in a future lineup and not doing anything that could hurt your defense. So don’t pull shenanigans when you’re being booked. Don’t smile. Don’t smirk. Don’t act weird. Try to look as unassuming and not-guilty as possible.
It pays to prepare
If you’re lucky enough to be turning yourself in (as opposed to being rousted out of bed at 5 a.m.), you’ll be able to prepare. Wear a shirt that won’t wash out your face. Make sure your hair is on point. Shave. Make yourself pretty—you only get one chance to make a first impression. Look at how well-groomed disgraced ex-house majority leader Tom Delay looks in the mugshot above! He still got three years, though.
Even if you aren’t given the luxury of surrendering yourself to authorities, being booked for a crime involves a lot of waiting around, so do the best to fix your hair and wipe the spray paint off your mouth—assuming you aren’t handcuffed.
Mugshots are all about the expression
Mugshots generally aren’t the most flattering images. They’re designed so their subjects will be identifiable, not beautiful, so the angles are specific and unforgiving: usually one shot straight ahead and one on each side. The lighting is harsh. No one is going to retouch your blemishes, tweak the contrast, or desaturate the colors.
The only thing you usually have to work with is your facial expression, and maybe a slight tilt of your head. But you can do a lot with a little. Below are some pose choices to think about while you hang out in the holding cell.
The coolest mugshots tend to feature a slight smirk. Check out Jimi Hendrix’s iconic “Can you believe this shit?” expression for an iconic example. The problem with the smirk is that while it looks defiant and rad, defiant probably isn’t the vibe you’re going for when accused of a crime, unless you’re Hendrix, who lived defiantly and radly every day of his life.
Do not smile in your mugshot. Even if it comes with free tacos. You might be trying for an “I don’t have a care in the world” efffect, but it looks dopey and callous, given the context. Take Brittany Wilson’s mugshot above. She has a lovely, radiant smile, but she’d just been arrest for stabbing her husband to death with a sword. I don’t know the circumstances (she reported the act to police herself and pled not guilty to murder charges), but she looks like someone who just stabbed her husband to death with a sword. The Daily Mail in the U.K. even took the opportunity to take potshots at her from across the ocean.
The glamor shot
Reality show pioneer and cultural harbinger Paris Hilton knows how to pose. Even after an arrest of drug possession, she looks unflappable and chic in her 2006 mugshot. However, perfecting a pose like this might require a lifetime of living in unimaginable luxury.
The hard stare
If you’re going to mean-mug the camera in the booking facility, you’d better be authentic. There’s nothing more pathetic than trying to look tough and failing. For inspiration, check out Johnny Cash’s classic “My life is a harder prison than you can imagine” mugshot. This was apparently taken as a joke with guards before Cash played at Folsom prison, but it illustrates the point perfectly.
The Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda’s defiantly raised fist made for an iconic mugshot, but I doubt they’d let you get away with it nowadays. If you try to give a peace sign, a middle finger, or a Vulcan “Live long and prosper” in 2023, I assume the officers would tell you to cut it out and take a different picture. Even if they don’t, you’re just asking to be picked out of a photo lineup.
The “good trouble”
John Lewis was a civil rights icon and American hero, but he was a mugshot hero too. This picture was taken after Lewis was arrested for using a whites-only bathroom on a freedom ride. It delivers, “everything you know will crumble to dust” energy. He looks like he’s pitying the asshole taking his picture. Amazing! That he tweeted it out later in his life when he was a congressman only adds to his legend.
Don’t even try to have a mugshot as cool as David Bowie’s (taken when he was arrested in New York on a drug charge alongside Iggy Pop). It’s never going to happen. Certainly no one will ever want to buy your mugshot at auction for $6,100.