Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

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? Rarely do such plates suggest any consciousness of driving, despite the possibility of including important messages to drivers in states where many roadways are occupied by bicycle traffic that is non-automotive.

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.

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Filed under classificatory schema, iconography, license plates, mapping United States, states rights

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