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.




Is there a lack 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 than a map, a sort of eye candy for the road–




–betrays a sense of a lack of place, as they evoke a purely decorative field that seems in its generic nature removed from place.

The new connotative images of place that decorate license plates exist at a considerable remove from the weight that the form of the map once organized.  Their prominent presence across an unending proliferation of license plate designs seems an artifact of graphic designers and the expansion of abilities of digital printing on metal surfaces, or a conjunction of the two that have effectively diminished the longstanding centrality of maps as a record of where the driver hails from.



maine licence plate





Indeed, in an age of constant geographic mobility of many, notwithstanding an increasingly evident decline of actual geographic mobility in regions of the USA over time of some note–



Source: U.S. Census Bureau

the lack of interest in the map as a designator of place of origin is pronounced, perhaps reveals an increasingly parochial pride in localism.  But it seems related to a declining authority of the symbolic form of the static map, in an age when everyone is their own cartographer on Google Maps and Bing, and the former fixity of the state map seems a less stable designator–and of far less interesting visual interest.  Despite a far greater shift toward the movement of populations to southern climes in the lower forty eight–



City Lab: Growth of Urban Populations, 1970-2000


The relation is somewhat mirrored in the growth of southern cities, although we still see considerable growth as well across the country’s regions–


Net Migration USA.pngCity Lab/Eric Jaffe


–which Richard Florida has cast in a far smaller year spread of 2012-3 as focussed in its largest metro areas.



lead_large-1.pngRichard Florida/Marin Prosperity/City Lab


Does the recent shift to the cities find a reflection in the bucolic image of the countryside, increasingly out of reach, which has made a huge comeback in license plate design?  While generic in design, the landscape that stands in for a map, depicting a relation to place as a scenic background with no actual specificity.  The corollary to this new style for designating site of registration is the effective symbolic demotion of maps from the field of vision offered in a license plate.  For a map nerd, this shift of visual registers seems dangerously close to an emptying of meaning, and a reflection of a broader devaluation of the cartographical sensibility long part of the aesthetic of American license plate design.  If such a shift relates to the material practices of printing with colored inks and half-tones, the new aesthetic of place in license plates seems one of an interchangeable background, less tied to local jurisdictions than to  conjuring an affective relation to place.




The shift in the digitized design of license plates is somewhat striking if one confines oneself only to its emergence as an almost affective relation to a local landscape at the same time as we have witnessed a growing homogenization of most environments.  Indeed, the generic western landscape of Arizona, much as an inviting image of Utah’s arches–


Utah Plate.png


or the mountainous northwestern state of Washington and its snow-capped peaks–


Washington Plate



–which don’t really only suggest ways of raising consciousness about environmental degradation and chances for the survival of landscape in an age of environmental pollution and global climate change.  For on a symbolic level, they surely most sharply contrast to the conservative declaration of origin in the license plates of generations back when license plate design wasn’t an area of work covered in the state budget, and when iconic maps had semiotic centrality in the license plate’s field of vision.  Indeed, the current offer of “choice” as a measure of individual expression, that can be selected online–


Personalize yours!.png


–seems but a logical if not a necessary extension of the rise of such promotional plates that approach advertisements of locality, in place of a line-drawn map.  The obsolescence of the map, indeed, as a simple flat polygon, seems to have occasioned its replacement by a dynamic landscape, just as the decline of map-reading has made the landscape far more interactive.

To be sure, we now locate one another online in how we stream information or locate ourselves in information webs or economies of information that define a filter bubble–




–but the problem of mapping place in license plates seems most overwhelmed by the resurgence of the license plate as a field of individual expression, the emblem of the atomized society that goes bowling alone, as the vanity plate–and the creation of individualized messages that one forces all to read–has replaced a sense of geographical stability that was once not only tacitly shared, but inscribed for all to read on the backs of cars.




Perhaps the sense of the state as a collective unit of meaning has also greatly declined, with the growth of extra-urban areas that spill across state boundaries, and the homogenization of most of the national highway.  In this context of placelessness, to be sure, the license plate has curiously become a place to evoke place once more, rather than to map spaciousness, or reclaim a sense of place and locality by pictorial connotations.  If in part a travel advertisement, the license plate is suddenly more atmospheric than ever before.




There is, to be sure, something of a pronounced resurgence of the romanticization of a relation to landscape, that has replaced a declaration of provenance or a consensus of the mapping of place.  Indeed, one might argue that the change reflects a decline of cartographical literacy–or in the shared perception of the expansiveness and power of the map’s semantic surface.




This change is echoed in the emergence of the license plate as a field suitable to plea for that landscape’s protection, and used to link its mountainous interior and popular ocean coast:


Maine License Plate Landscape


For the landscape has similarly replaced the map in the case of Oregon, whose earlier trumpeting of itself as the “Pacific Wonderland” was replaced by the emblem of a tree from 1988–an evergreen douglas fir often viewed apart from the mountainous landscape in which it is set and surrounded:


Oregon plate


There’s similar sort of formal fun of eliding the plate and region is evident in Canadian license plate design, at least where the landscape of the spectacular Northwest Territories incarnated in the form of a polar bear who prowls its piney plateaux:


Spectacular snow-stained Northwest Territories


To be sure, the increased variety of vanity plates suggest an attempt to individualize the plate as a form of property–or public statement–but the shift in license plate design seems most evident in the appearance of the airbrushed landscape plate in recent decades, that describe the place of registration in pastels, as if landscape has more broadly replaced map as a designator of where one lives–in part because of the inclusion that a shared landscape provides, as if a surrogate publicity statement for the state’s Office of Tourism–as much as offering objective declaration of vehicular registration.


North Dakota 1993 design--best new plate of 1993.png



Whereas maps once occupied a privileged pride of place in defining the plate as something bestowed by state agencies in earlier eras, the widespread pictorialization of the landscapes on recent license plates, which read like travel advertisements for a vacation, parallels the marginalization of the place of the map now reduced to a hyphen or semantic glyph reveal a real but radical reduction of the meaning of the map as a region.


New York Plate




How did the map find itself to be so widely supplanted–as it is in this image of the rolling Tennessee Hills–by the landscape as the designator of place?  For the increasing ease of replication of printed plates has come to include an increasing amount of painted emblems for the state, as the elision of an imaginary landscape of New York State, that stretches, here, from Niagara Falls to the Empire State building, that stands as the collective identity for the Empire State, above the map transformed to hyphen–




or a symbol that stands in an almost ghostly presence behind the most popular citrus fruit long exported from the state.  The orange indeed seems a superimposed signifier placed over the map of Florida–at considerable size atop a ghostly half-tone green form of the state, which might suggest how the devotion to citrus crops and growing has changed its local economy and helped empty them of watersheds.  And the range of possible mottoes or legends offers at suggest that the state is less prominent as a subject or signifier than the personalization of attitudes the owner might claim.


Florida Plates


There is an untold but not hidden history in the gradual obscuring of the state-map as a designator of origin in the history of license plate design seems somewhat significant.  For within the fifty states has been replaced by the prevalence of a landscape scenery designed to decorate license plates of a decidedly more air-brushed aesthetic–as if to propose an idea of the local point of origin as sharp graphic alternative to the abstracted aesthetic of Google Maps that we now consult more often when we are afoot or behind the wheel.


A look backwards at what was lost may be in order . . .




There was a time when the authority of the printed map stood as a prime designator of one’s site of origin–as if the registration number were most suitably framed by the frontier like boundaries of the state map over some fifty years:






usa mt 1967



Even if these formal maps weren’t particularly accurate, and now stand as relics of a different age of cartographical design, how can we explain the fad for using generic landscapes on the license plates that increasingly denote automobiles site of registration as a change in the presence of such static maps in our daily lives?  Is the change only a migration from the world of graphic design to license-plate design, or is it suggestive of geographic study?  (To be fair, the map of Tennessee looks nothing like the above license plate, which is largely symbolic.)  But what did change was the license plate as a field of reference, and an expansion of the possibilities of what counted a designation of location–at the same time as a dramatic expansion in customer options in license plates.

The eclipse of the semantic content of plates may be related to the widespread sentiment “I’ll just trust where Google tells me to go” from drivers behind the wheel, decreasingly likely to depend on a stash of folded maps stored in their glove compartments or side pockets for ready consultation for navigational needs or emergencies.  But it is hard to explain only as such.  That claim would be pretty steep; but it does suggests a new notion of map-consciousness and map-literacy worthy of attention.  In part, the aesthetic of the imaginary landscape in the license plate is partly about the decorative nature of the plate, or the sense in which license plates have emerged as explicit ways to promote tourism, as much as pride of place, but evokes a new sort of regional boosterism.

Have evocative landscapes become sufficient to designate the driver’s origins, replacing the iconic maps which for so long served as points of reference to denote any vehicle’s site of registration, even when they were anodynely concealed as creative hyphens that could hardly be called cartographical, but seem more residual vestiges soon to disappear?




images-2 copy






Or does the actual design of license plates reflect a relegation of questions of geographic residence to the margins of public consciousness?  Does it reflect a diminished place of the static, iconic map within our visual culture–and in the mental landscapes of Americans?  License plates that substitute the previous prominence of state maps for a fictive air-brushed landscape are an odd place to find post-modernism, but may express a rejection of mapping forms.  The increased conflation of the license plate suggests a resurgence of the aesthetic of landscape views in a shared interior geography, as well as being an apparent victory of graphic design.

For the gradual but ineluctible triumph of the generic and often airbrushed landscape in many license plates in ways a victory of graphic design, if not the lower costs and technology of color printing.  But it is also, no doubt, a desperate move to promote tourism to bored drivers as they scan passing cars by interjecting something more reminiscent of scenic picture postcards reproduced on metal, seems a shift in visual culture disturbingly emblematic of a shifting geographical consciousness and spatial imaginary–and indeed map-literacy.

Take South Carolina, which seems a true travel advertisement–


South Carolina


Or, more starkly, the spectacles of desert landscapes during a spectacular sunset that is offered by the Grand Canyon State, seems to entice one to travel to visit a scene bound to be memorable if one was only there, evocative of an old if disappearing image of the American west and its open skies.




Or of a destination of altitude in snowy mountains, evoking the topography of mountainous terrain–





Such plates are evocative of generic locations, although they might be as easily taken by the generic stark mock-tapestries that are still used to denote the territory of New Mexico–




–but update the variation of tourist landscape that played for some time in the eastern seaboard of austere Maine, which calls attention to its attractions in a characteristically understated way, while taking the license plate as a pictorial surrogate of place:




Does the shifting design of license plates offer a new way of mapping the United States, perhaps as important as the division between red and blue states in our electoral maps?

The marked diminishment of the map’s presence in license plate appears a cultural rejection of the authority once possessed by a silhouetted map as an iconic signifier of place.  The range of place-names found on license plates have long been counted by bored kids on interstates attempting to locate the full fifty for diversion, or as a pastime on those miles in back seats–even as the dynamic two-tone color-schemes, emblems or logos used to signify specific states have  shifted with a new era of graphic design.  Has the interest of the license plate as a designator of place declined?   The enterprising folks who design puzzle-like games for kids at  Melissa & Doug have tried to replicate the excitement of spotting license plates from rear-seat-windows on road trips–


Melissa and Doug License Plates


–and although their version lacks some of the excitement of spotting license plates in a moving landscape, and a good amount are the very airbrushed landscape views described below, a fair number of the plates include the recognizable cartographical forms that once denoted the physical places of most vehicles’ sites of registration.


MD Close Up States


And not many of those plates suggest more than a generic sense of place rooted in scenery to evoke place in ways that almost substitute for designating provenance. What of the license plate as a canvas of illustration?  To be sure, the back of the car remains a significant place to demonstrate affinities to specific geographic locales, to be sure; but symbolic forms for denoting provenance–and perhaps familiar forms of recognizing place–have dramatically shifted over time from visual markers that designate place, emptying themselves of specific geographic content to become icons between alphanumeric sequences.

The iconic display of the map is definitely on its way out given the current trends to the predominance of landscape imagery on American license plates.

The few maps present in license plates appear as something on the level of iconic hangers-on:  their semantic status demoted to that of lexical markers equivalent to punctuation marks or hyphens–and muting their semiotic content to an extent easily overlooked at speeds of 60 mph, or walking by rows of parked cars:   generic landscapes/cityscapes in decorative license plates may even upset an actual map’s design.




A visual clue to the vestiges of meaning in the map as a signifier of location seem some sort of appeal to tradition, to be sure, as much as actual geographic literacy:





Often, the “map-as-hyphen” that survives in plates exists merely to punctuates alphanumeric sequences as much as to denote provenance in a token form is often replaced by an abstract glyph or iconic form, serving as something like a talisman, whose iconic form occupies a place of centrality in the plate, but seems a signifier that is decidedly reduced in its symbolic power:


images-7 images-2

The popularity of including such cartographical silhouettes in the guise of semantic markers seems something of a reduction of the power of the map as a powerful marker of place–as the Land of Lakes, Minnesota, is reduced to a domain name on the Chevy hatchback below–

Minnesota hatchback

or Tennessee a dark mark–quite hyphen-like indeed!–is embedded in what a representation of its rolling hills.


Tennessee--The Volunteer State


The map seems to have less status both as an autonomous signifier of place, one might say, as well as a site of the transmission of meaning whose conventions and the character of whose mappiness is respected.

The long-transmitted republican heritage of designating states within a republic seems to be implicitly referred to in multiple sorts of old license-plate mash-up maps or metalic collages sold on Ebay for $100 that communicate some serious cartographical know-how.


license plate art


It’s also nice to see some folks being less nationalistic about this crude sort of concept-art, including Canada to embody the entire North American continent and be left without a reminder of Alaska and Hawaii:




Be it cool kitsch or nostalgic metal-work, it can’t conceal the fading of maps to a sort of state-sponsored tourist advertisement in the form of landscape, rather than map, maybe of a piece with globalism, or google maps, or the dominance of advertising in all parts of our visual lives. It’s hard not to note the broad adoption of the landscape suggests a romantic identification with a place-less locale.

Often, the plate is resculpted as if it were a sculptural form.

The appeal of the skyline or landscape in our visual culture suggests a more effective and attractive advertisement–probably persuasive to state legislators who allocate funds to the metal plates, and have to find a reason to do so beyond good practices or pedagogy.  But it also makes an explicit appeal to an affective relation to place by dramatizing landscape as a subject able to promote a personal identification with a given scene, in ways that border on a vanity plate.  Landscape is a romanticization of place, to be sure, serving as a stand-in for the notion that we all, even when driving on an interstate almost bumper-to-bumper, all originate from a place and a state. This tendency to see landscape as a more recognizable icon than the map suggests an increasing devaluation of the formal map as a container of relevant meaning.  There is, indeed, the weird absence of specificity that seems characteristic of these airbrushed landscape views, each of which take a specific scenic sight, seems to generalize to a state’s entirety, rather than situate its location.




If the above seems a sort of turn toward advertising for tourism, there is an odd attempt in these landscapes to communicate something of a “genius loci” while using visual imagery of a simple, almost airbrush, variety, that perhaps–though this may be a leap–recall a landscape into which one is driving contracted to the small rectangular frame of a license plate. One can almost map a car-trip in the succession of plates, form the western mountains to the midwest, suggest the iconographic essentialization of the landscape that was met by pioneers is something of a recurrent theme in license plate design, as if to provide a visual resting place that can vary the relative monotony of passing cars on highway lanes:


DSCN3983 images-2   images-5 images-4


At times, the symbolic motif of a landscape is liberalized as a politicized call for protecting critical habitat, in ways that give the landscape a bit of a polemic preservationist tone worthy of its wilderness:




More deeply, however, there seems a clear, if completely uncoordinated, attempt to generate a sense of place-specificity or uniqueness in an age when much of the road–and much of the globe–looks increasingly the same.  At times, the plates one sees on the road nicely evoke geographic specificity, playing something of an environmental card to good effect, as in Minnesota–these sort of plates exist for several states, including New Hampshire, and are available for an extra cost that goes to protect the region’s wildlife.  But the landscape plate seems a sort of proxy map of unclear aesthetics, a bid to gain specificity and location that might respond to the popularity of the vanity plate, but really holds little sense of place:  the feeling that “there’s just no there there” across the entire continuous 48. Several states prefer to select one monument that reflects the state’s identity or motto, as the folks in New Hampshire who, making good on the tough state motto–“Live Free or Die“–have chosen to popularize the iconic “Old Man on the Mountain,” a geological formation that is also symbol of rugged individualism, known mostly to state residents , but which falls decidedly short of a map, and seems more of a generic landscape given its muted tones, barely perceptible on the road:


New Hampshire


The polemic undertones increasingly characteristic of such specialty plates has proved extremely popular, producing an astounding amount of 17.6 million dollars in Texas alone.  In the lone star state, some 877,000 vehicle carry one of the 350 types of plates currently on offer.  The medium that has become a surprising source of state revenue as much as an adornment of a car has become as well a form of fundraising in states like Michigan, where public universities are the unlikely recipients of DMV-issued plates, in a new monetization of attention that has migrated from public universities to health care to political action groups, where for an extra nominal fee and a surcharge on renewal, as a way of raising revenues from causes as diverse as Breast Cancer Awareness, anti-abortion groups, Boy Scouts of America, or, indeed, lighthouse preservation. In such a setting of local sentiment and national mapping, the treatment of the license plate as a miniature billboard, the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed their own license plate in Texas seems disturbing in its secessionist iconography as well as its retention of odious imagery.

The nationalistic license plates of the state fits neatly into its landscape of open skies, so there was no surprise that the prototype of the design was initially accepted.  But the prominence it gives the confederate flag raises eyebrows for more reasons  than its symbolic shock, given that its relegation of the state’s image to its margins–as if the map were a secondary designation of the car owner’s affiliation.  The proposed design clearly distracts from the state of Texas’ map–long naturalized in a position of conspicuous prominence in the lone star state, even when the state is painted as a microcosm of the red, white, and blue–as if loyalty to a state could replace or effectively substitute for loyalty to the country, as if the center of a broader ideology of the nation state.


Open Skies:Map as Hyphen


Although Sons of the Confederate Veterans insists that the medium of the license plate is an act of free speech in the Lone Star state, such claims may mask the fact that its strategically-placed surface is designed to get the public attention of motorists that included ideological statements.  The attempt to introduce a more explicitly states’ rights image of the confederate flag as an option for a Texas license plate takes the assertion of the particularity of a state much farther, in ways that press against not only the First Amendment but the notion of a political union.  The recently proposed license plate honoring the confederate soldiers who were ancestors of some Texans, semantically foregrounds the ideology embodied in flag and demotes a map of the state to the upper right hand corner to an empty sign.  Indeed, instead of evoking the state, the image it includes both as a badge and as a flag embody an openly separatist ideology through the “rebel” or confederate battle flag. Although the license plate’s design is presented as only an option for descendants–or “Sons”–of confederate soldiers to honor descendants of a long defunct fighting force, the sympathies that these descendants seem to share with the cause of their forefathers to some degree suggest it is not only a form of ancestral pride.  It takes no great iconographical chops to identify an emblem inherited from the civil war of 1861-65, even if it is still retained in the flags of seven state flags in the South and Lynyrd Skynyrd patches and shirts, where it is presented as the image of Nashville, as an odious racist symbol.




For the flag of the Confederacy has long stood not only for racial segregation but oppression and an old order of dehumanization that is inseparable from a form of hate speech–and an insult without much place in civil society–if this is only being recently recognized.  The emblem’s evocation of a battle cry not only verges on a hate crime, but embodies one; more than one of the most “odorous products of a democracy,” as Nat Hentoff has it, its stench might well be quite offensive to many drivers who share the road–if not an odious form of speech, resting as it did on the defense of a discredited and odious institution.  (And the long-time columnist and adamant spokesman Nat Hentoff, who spent his career both defending civil liberties and evaluating what lies in the common good, has as good a nose for such a stench as anyone around.)


Confederate License plate texas



Hentoff pinpointed the problems of confounding the medium of the license plate with a forum for political speech.  For the inclusion of a political emblem in the state-issued plate is akin to confusing a bumper sticker with a state-issued ID.  The assertion of the license plate as an instance of the government’s alleged restriction of free speech suggests the suppression of fairly unarticulate speech, at any rate, as it does not distinguish or try to distinguish the connotations of juxtaposing a secessionist flag on a surface issued by the state–and a narrow notion of where such free speech might occur. We express deep thanks that Justice Stephen G. Bryer ruled it unprotected by the First Amendment, concluding that rather than constitute only an act of “free speech,” the medallion-like prominent of the positioning of the flag on the license plate constitutes a sphere of government speech.   Yet given the extremely personal symbolism with which the piece of metal attached to one’s own car’s bumper might be invested, Bryer hesitated identifying it as hate speech–or as an undue appropriation of a state-sanctioned vehicle identifying tag in ways that could be readily confused with state-sanctioned speech.

There is something slightly obscene about obscuring the denotative functions of license place as insignia of local registration, and the time-worn republican function of state maps with the most important icon of secession ever to be produced in the nation’s history–and an icon that was intended to be a form of resistance to desegregation when introduced into the South Carolina in 1962.  Associations of intolerance are so inseparable from the emblem that they go beyond its federalist tones. The flag’s prominent inclusion in the plate as a form of odious speech might have been better to explicitly recognize and acknowledge.  Such an acknowledgment will not be far in coming.  It’s explicit statement would, indeed, be likely to be an overstepping of the judicial role.

Even as the confederate symbol was planned to be removed from the flag of Mississippi and its symbolism in Virginia was openly acknowledged to be “divisive and hurtful,” civil society seems to have moved in the legislative direction that the court cannot properly attempt–if only since it would have extended beyond the scope of a judicial opinion.  (In a cascading of the subtraction of what was quite recently central to the iconography of the South, Virginia’s Governor has promised to have the Confederate flag banned from the state’s license plates, on the heels of Justice Bryer’s ruling–even though a state referendum chose not to remove the reference to the Confederate flag from the state flag in 2001; the confederate flag has been unilaterally absented from public display in Alabama by its state’s governor.)

The apparent abandonment of the iconography claiming descendence from a segregated society rooted in racial oppression will not be without resistance.  The barely credible acceptance of the license plate as a surface of free speech reflects a reduced notion of articulate speech, but also hijacks the designation of place by taking it as a surface where hate speech might appear.  The undue prominence of a separatist flag within a license plate poses an interpretive conundrum as much as an issue of free speech.  But unlike “God Bless Texas,” or even Choose Life”–both included among the 58 possible designs of license plates on offer in Texas that Justice Samuel Alito helpfully offered any interested readers in an appendix to his dissent that suggest potential capabilities in a career in marketing, the prominent display of a separatist icon seems to engage in a dialogue with the map perched in the upper right, diminishing if not emptying it of symbolic power.  Identification of the car as belonging to a “Son of the Confederate Veterans” riffs on “Support our Veterans” logos in claiming pride for past military effort–




images-12 Unknown-4 priorservice_2270_45094220

–that subsume state of origin to the notation of military service.  If this is argued to be an avenue of individual expression, it seems more of a bit of a desperate appropriation of a luggage-tag or registration as an excuse for individual attention, akin as such to the vanity license plates which try to compress a clever message into the alphanumeric sequence blazoned on the plate itself. What was demonstrative of national sacrifice has been used as a foil to voice antimilitary statements, to be sure, but is coopted by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to evoke another army, long ago, whose values have long been expunged from a politics of tolerance in ways that seems far more seriously socially transgressive than even the expletive of this veteran who was awarded a purple heart in combat.  (Indeed, as the sons of Veterans, they could be said to be recuperating from the inbred family-instilled affection for a flag with which they perhaps had around the house for their childhoods–so that it became a sign of belonging–stripped of the semantic connotations of despicable race hatred in connoted to the Confederate Army.)




For the evocation of identifying with a family of a veteran is overly instrumentalized as a statement of dissensus in the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” plate that first sent the case to the Supreme Court.  (“Many other specialty plates have the potential to irritate and perhaps even infuriate those who see them,” Justice Alito observed sharply in his dissent, but the deep singularity of the Confederate Flag in the nation–and in the nation’s history–as an emblem supporting separatism and the “darkest and most dehumanizing period for African-Americans in the history of the United States,” as B.J. Williams of the NAACP argued in response, whose image was especially toxic in its instinctual associations.)

For rather than only stand as an expression of honoring one’s family pride, the visual assault of the hate speech present in these plates seem intentionally designed to stoke issues whose levels of disturbance is all too familiar, but whose degree of disturbance, quite amazingly,  has only now begun to be openly recognized and no longer allowed to go without condemnation or reproving.  For even a century and a half after the Civil War, in the sentiment of affiliating with a long-disbanded army in a state where the Voting Rights Act is still locally contested, and statues at the state’s capitol include images of the Confederate flag, the odious emblem recalls an all-too-present hateful ideology whose expression more than offensive in the very continuity of its appearance.  Even if, as Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller conceded in prepared comments to the US Supreme Court, “Texas has its name on every license plate,”  the design treats the plate to yet another opportunity for framing an openly ideological statement designed purely to get public attention in ways that push the bounds of identifying as the resident of a region–by declaring one’s affiliation with not only a separatist philosophy but ideology of hate. Even without noting the existence of similar plates in other states, the red lettering identifies the driver’s pride in being among the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” seems to entail the secondary relegation of the outline of Texas to the upper right hand corner.  Indeed the demotion as an icon of belonging to an ideology whose racist component is difficult not to interpret or read as a sign of private sentiment with racist undertones–whose inclusion in a license plate’s seems to invest it with the status of a state-sanctioned expression.

What a clever ploy to call it free speech.  Indeed, it is effectively an explicitly ideological position individuals are invited to adopt in ways sanctioned by the state–or the Dept. of Motor Vehicles–despite the potentially animus sentiments triggered by the prominent place of confederate flag in two sites of the license plate–it elevates a symbol of pointedly political sentiment by emptying meaning from the evacuated map relegated to the upper right hand corner of the vanity plate, in ways that unduly politicize the sort of speech that a license plate might prominently include, even as a gambit to increase revenues of states. The business of vanity license plates has grown wildly popular in the fifty states, in ways that one doesn’t usually associate with Freedom of Speech.  Is there detectable tendency to discard the image of a map, and a sense of national belonging trumped by reasons of intense localism?  Not really. There is a degree of ambivalence toward the marginalization of maps in license plates, to judge from a quite condensed recent history of license plates across select states, although the example of Texas exemplifies the use of the reduction of the map for quite expedient political ends that almost suggest a mild desperation to make one’s political voice heard.

US_NEXX_GI7 Of which I think I prefer the combination of map and landscape: images-8


Place is at times evoked by a single monument, chosen by New Hampshire, but the official Maine plate seems a tasteful way to promote its status as a tourist site in an understated way, using a notional relation to place and space with ducks or pine-cones; Ohio offers a more place-less version of sun-drenched Americana among its range of ‘pride’-plates and Rhode Island a tasteful abstracted seascape.



maine licence plate


Ohio Plate Generic Scene Rhode Island, Ocean State


Among those states that retain maps, Florida offering a range of options below an image of succulent oranges over a stenciled silhouette of the state’s form:


Florida Plates


And it’s kind of reassuring that Florida has retained a light Kelly Green map, even offering a variety of different mottos or place names.  But it’s difficult to tell if the trend to landscape bodes for the obscuring of a map, and many of the alternate choices don’t seem so inspired at all. It seems that the old standard of the iconic use of a map has lost even the pretense of being an identifying sign of provenance, despite whatever sort of clear identifying value that the only vague shape of the state that once appeared in unadorned form for kids raised on wooden puzzles of national maps of the US.


images   images


We can now buy multiple license plate with different vanity designs on eBay; the license plate is no longer an official document or container of meaning arrived at by committee consensus, but something redesigned on the open market, and available in every flavor, color, and pattern one could desire.  I miss the outlined map, so reassuring a marker of place, maybe because I find the weird reduction of the cartographical form to a meaningless abstraction a source of perverse pleasure.  Yet folks who like to select their own numbers create hybrid statements on license plates that never fail to instruct and amuse because of their odd placement, especially below a state’s motto:


New Hampshire on the Road


The surprising combination between the state’s motto “Live Free or Die” with the personalized  “Shalom” seem semantically odd, and may not have been intended by its owner as a rhetorical device or a study in contrasts.  But as a maxim on driving, if not of living, it seems right on. The driver’s free speech, however, seems rightfully restricted to the center of the plate, rather than to its header, footer, or iconographic adornment.

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

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