Many years ago, I worked for The Polk Company, a provider of automotive data, much of it collected from state motor vehicle departments. While employed there, I came up with the idea of making a dictionary of personalized license plates.
Think of it. Often while driving, you see a personalized license plate with some odd combination of characters and it takes several seconds before you can figure out what it says. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a book full of these encoded messages? The Polk Company would be the perfect source for this data and I figured it would only take me a few weeks to put together a book and shop it around to a publisher.
Unfortunately, it turns out it had already been done at least once. Within a couple days several of my coworkers told me they had already seen such a book and one of them brought one in and gave it to me. Alas, the book has since been lost. (Sorry, Carol.) A search on Amazon turns up thousands of possible replacements, so maybe there would still be room for one more. Oh well.
One of many fun fact books on license plates. Image from Amazon
I hadn’t thought about that project in quite a while, but within the past two weeks artwork made from personalized license plates has caught my eye twice.
The first was a piece called Preamble by Mike Wilkins, an artist the same age as me. He recreated the preamble of the U.S. Constitution using license plates from all 50 states and Washington, DC. The work was completed in 1987 in celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution. I saw it while visiting the American Art Museum in Washington.
He uses many of the abbreviations common to personalized license plates. I wonder what the censors at the department of motor vehicles thought of some of them:
WE TH | P PUL | OF TH | UNI | DIDD | ST8S
INNOR | DUR 2 | 4M A | MOR PUR | FEC UNE | NONE
S TAB | LISH | JUSTIZ | N SURE | DOME
ESTIK | TRAN | KWILI | T PRO | VIDE 4 | TH COM
UN DE | FENZ | PRO MOT | THE JEN R | L WEL
FARE N | C CURE | TH BLES | NGS OF | LIBBER | T 2 R
SELVES | N R POS | TERI T | DO R | DANE N
S-TAB | LISH | THIS | CON STI | 2 10 | 4 TH
U NI | TID | ST8S | OF AH | MARE | E CUH
The 51 plates are arrayed in a grid, in alphabetical order. (I think it would have been even more clever to lay them out to form the shape of the continental U.S. with the plates placed close to their geographical location. But that’s me.) You can see a photograph of this wonderful piece at http://www.americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=27722. (More on the reason for my visit to DC, an fMRI scan of my brain, in a future blog post.)
The second piece of license plate art I saw recently was in connection with the famous typographer and designer Jessica Hische. Her work is featured at the cleverly named website, http://jessicahische.is/awesome/.
The Society of Design in Pennsylvania recently invited Ms. Hische to speak at an event. In order to create the invitation, they crafted a heartfelt message. Then 35 members of the society each bought a personalized license plate with a piece of the message. The text was broken up as follows, notice the lack of cute abbreviations:
DEAR JES | SICA PLE | ASE CONS | IDER VIS
ITING SO | CIETY OF | DESIGN I | N PENNSY
LVANIA A | ND SHARI | NG CAPTI | VATING A
ND AMAZI | NG TYPOG | RAPHIC W | ORK THAT
WILL AMA | ZE ASTON | ISH MOTI | VATE AND
PROVE TO | BE BENEF | ICIAL TO | AN ENORM
OUSLY LA | RGE CROW | D THANKS
You can read about the project and see a photo of the actual invitation at http://invitinghische.com/.