Daily Archives: July 13, 2013

Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

The politicization of the design of these most common designators of place on cars, the license plate, is hardly surprising.  After all, the rise of the proprietorial sense of designing ones own plates is not a far jump to that of viewing the format of the license plats as if this designation of plate were not forms of public writing.  Even without considering the broad notion of what sort of writing this constitutes, the readiness to treat license plate design as an avenue for freedom of speech as a form of expression reveals a pronounced shift not only in the aesthetics but in the use and construction of license plate design in the past.

For during the past twenty years, we have come to identify the content of one’s plates as transcends a tag of where one’s from, taking it as an occasion to raise state revenues and provide vanity illustrations of individualization on the highway and driveway at considerable costs.  Perhaps it is worth asking how this relates not only to freedom of expression, but to our sense of place.  It is perhaps on account of the massive growth of graphic designers and graphic arts, as well as the ease of printing airbrush designs on metallic surfaces, that the license plate, that modest of all surfaces, has recently become something of an advertisement–along the lines of U-Haul moves; the images on license plates have become evocative landscapes that almost embed viewers in their content, depicting a sense of place that seems more alluring than neutrally mapped.  Indeed, the growth of new landscape icons on the license plates that are seen on the road seems to have inspired the coterie of graphic designers at Ars Tecnica to assign an award for the “ugliest license plate” to appear, at the start of the new millenium.

The call to action was in response to the proliferation of digitized plates in what once was a stable signifier of location and regional provenance.  Beyond being a form of taxonomic classification, or an add-on for vehicle registration, the personalization of plates have brought a search to capture the essence of place of partly nauseating kitsch–


–that summons the struggle for place to still exist in a post-map world, as much as it conjures a sense of place that we might really recognize, as if an affective image that tries to appeal to the state’s residents, but is removed from the geographical map.

Indeed, despite the radically limited cartographical content of the raised state pictured on the New York State license plate, a considerable effort was invested in affirming the iconic centrality of the state, even it it is a barely recognizable or distinguished blob of paint when raised metal when at close hand.  TO be sure, New York license plate design is distinguished by its ability to comprehend a broad geographic unity, and functions as a mapping as an illusion shrinking the geographical distances between, say, Niagara Falls and Manhattan in a somewhat short-lived attempt to spread across the economically and culturally quite diverse state–


–but relies on the map, as if an atrophied remained, as a hyphen between alphanumeric license numbers.  Although these dramatically reduced maps serve but as tokens, to offer a visual pause between digits, numbers, or letters, have lost the geographic identifying functions for most states, the token placement of small, raised maps in several northeast states–New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and, to an extent, but in a different fashion, Pennsylvania–suggests a survival of the cartographical as a remainder of which some states are not ready to let go or consign to the dustbin of history, even in an age of GPS and digitized maps.  Not really a visual fetish, but a designator of place, distinguished by an exaggerated appendix of Long Island, the New York image is no doubt the most familiar and recognizable, even if its edges are quite abstractly smoothed so that they provide little resemblance to an actual map, which is reduced to a mere token.

NY state blip on license plate.png

While the map is paired by a similar centrality of New Jersey in license plates in the greater metropolitan area–and in the image of the ‘keystone state’ that is used to punctuate Pennsylvania plates, the diminished centrality of the map in license plates suggests a certain sense of loss, and a sense of bolstering the symbolic meaning of the map.


To b3 sure, there is a survival of maps that seem to have migrated into some license plate templates, as if to curry favor among an older audience–that continue to try to reconcile the built horizon of Detroit and the bridge that spans the great lakes with the blue icon of those majestic bodies of water themselves, which, while in fact spanning several states and two nations, provide a symbolic shorthand for the state and its unity to the Upper Peninsula, as well as foregrounding or advertising its spectacular peninsulas–

–as the sun setting over Lake Michigan, in the prospect of “Great Lakes Splendor” shows a sunset through the iconic span of the bridge, foregrounds the landscape’s unity by cool blues lake waters.

The issue may be relatively pronounced. For unlike other states, save Hawaii, and no other non-cosstal states actually bridge bodies of water in their sovereign space. Indeed, if maps provide the most familiar and powerful ways of uniting space in a coherent fashion, the problem of coherence in the “other border state” are profound.

But the case of Michigan may evoke a sense of bucolic peace, increasingly common in other plates, that has displaced the map as if the license plate were. a form of travel advertisement, akin to those images on U-Hauls that one also sees on highways, as the available lingo for promoting an iconic and symbolic relation to place. And the Great Lakes do this well, as a surrogate for the natural that denies the increasingly athropogenic pollution in the pounds of plastic that enters the lakes as they truly are today, so removed from the pristine blue of a cartographic imagination.

Indeed, are these images of landscapes that adorn license plates not a form of collective denial of the huge contribution of crowded highways to the emission of carbon pollution that are a critical force in the crisis of climate change?

Or does a pronounced lack of adequate signifiers of place that plagues the range of new digitized images that adorn plates with a notional sense of place, something often borrowed form a tourist brochure crossed with a screensaver, rather than a map, only offering a sort of eye candy for the road? The arguments aren’t contradictory: after all, climate change is a global uncertainty that undermines the stability of place, or indeed the preservation of inherited ideas of place, and that we can continue to deny–even as we drive–by reminding ourselves of the shores that plates of coastal states as Florida often argue will always be there for us, as an endless summer just in reach for whoever drives or flies there.


The absence of better signifiers of place in license plates that evoke a purely decorative field seem in their generic nature to be sadly removed from place. Even as driving and petroleum consumptions stand to redraw the shores of the United States, and to threaten the stability of the coastal shores on which an increasing number of Americans live–both today and by 2100.

/Surging Seas (2100)/Climage Central

Even as we can examine, Seeing Choices, to see the possible dangers of a long-term rise in sea levels that would be locked in by different amounts of carbon pollution, and compare alternate possible scenarios that we would face after temperature rises of 0°C through h 4°C of global warming, the license plates of the cars we drive seem to offer a contrasting image of the relative stability, and perpetual peace, of place within a skewed or distorted spatial imaginary that prides its symbolic stability.

Perhaps this is the record that we prefer to see as we drive, moving at high speeds along national speedways, demanding consensus that what we do when we drive a lot in single-passenger vehicles is consistent with the stability of place that license plates promote.

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Filed under Free Speech, Freedom of Speech, license plates, mapping United States