Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

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:


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:



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 the conservation of its historic 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.  

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

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