Area of Expertise is a column on niche interests, personal passions, and other things we might know or care a little too much about.
This is going to make me sound like a cop, but hear me out: Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken hundreds of photos of strangers’ license plates. I’m not a cop (The Departed, 2006), but instead a kind of urban explorer, who searches not for wild mushrooms or abandoned city ruins, but something much less useful and less romantic. I am on a quest to track and catalog the country’s best and brightest vanity license plates.
A vanity license plate (or a “cherished plate” in the UK, aw) is a form of vehicle identification just like any other, but one that’s personalized (for a price) to send a little message that tells the world what you’re all about. You might claim allegiance to a certain sports team, or share affection for a loved one, or deliver a mild threat to drivers behind you. And because you have to acquire license plates through official bureaucratic means, unlike bumper stickers, vanity plates show that you’re not messing around. When you say you love DZNWRLD, you fucking love DZNWRLD.
License plate hunting, like birding, is a pastime that is impossible to turn off once you’ve turned it on. And you’ll quickly learn that vanity license plates bring us closer to our fellow humans. I remember, several years ago in Brooklyn, seeing a refurbished hearse with MORTAL on its plates. I somberly whispered to myself, “Damn...true.” I’ve wondered what motivated a Connecticut driver to declare IM EVIL or a New Yorker to claim they were INNOCENT? When I found a LVLS2DIS within a day of a LEVLS2IT, I wondered if these drivers had ever passed each other on Nostrand Ave. Did they smile through their rearview mirrors? Did they feel they were better understood? Did this add or take away from the levels to this?
I’ve lived in New York now for 13 years, and I don’t even own a car, so it’s not often that I’m behind the wheel myself. When I am, I can’t hunt for plates as effectively as I can while wandering around the city on foot, mostly because parsing a blur of numbers and letters while also operating a motor vehicle is not easy. (Once, on a bike ride to the beach, I spotted a HI H8ER Virginia plate and stopped so suddenly that I almost kick-started a deadly bike path pileup. Don’t worry — I still got the snap.)
But this intense and unwavering commitment, even if it can occasionally be distracting in conversation when you stop to yell, “Oh my god, that’s a good one,” is another part of what makes the hunt so fun. Think about what it’s like to walk down the street since you got a smartphone. Do you ever actually look up anymore? I can’t stand to think I’d miss a KRAZYBOY or BADGURRL just because I was refreshing some dumb app into perpetuity. Vanity plate hunting makes you forget your phone was even in your pocket, at least until it’s time to take the pic. You’re on a worldwide treasure hunt that will literally never end. My photo archive is a trove of delicious finds that most of the time I don’t even post anywhere; I just let them pile up, like cash under a mattress. (And, for the record, it is not illegal to photograph someone else’s license plate, unless you are trespassing on their property to do so. Don’t do that.)
This hobby requires not just persistence, but a certain thoughtfulness. I love decoding the meaning behind plates and, in turn, trying to better understand the people behind the wheel. BQTNDRV could just be a random collection of letters to someone not interested in the little gifts all around them, but to the vanity license plate hunter, you get a sweet little hidden affirmation: Be cute and drive.
In fact, it is often the hardest-to-decipher license plates that are the most gratifying to spot. On a visit to California in February, I saw a Toyota Corolla in a Starbucks parking lot with the plates GLDNS. Do they love goldens? Are they in love with glad news? Or gold nuggets? Perplexed and frustrated, I texted the photo to the friend I had been visiting on the West Coast. Maybe she’d better understand her fellow statespeople.
“I love the Golden State,” she — a genius — responded immediately. (In hindsight, the context clues were there: a sticker of a grizzly bear, and another with the word “RAD.”) Another friend told me of the license plate owned by a tennis coach at his high school: 10SFN8IC. When I asked him about it again recently, the letters and numbers still looked insane to me. “Tennis fanatic,” he told me, gratified to see how stunned I was. Oh my god, I’m stupid.
There are plenty of other plates that I’ve never figured out, and I regret getting into the habit of not photographing these ones at all, either out of shame for my inability to crack the code, or spite that this stranger could have stumped me. But I console myself by thinking of all the other alphanumeric enigmas out there, still waiting to be solved. I am committing to taking photos of all of them now.
Perhaps even better than the thrill of the hunt, in some cases, are the stories behind the plates. For example, a woman I follow on Instagram has a motorcycle with the license plate DCK WLF, a tribute to the executive producer of Law & Order: SVU, Dick Wolf. She had to fight the state of California to prove that DCK WLF was not a profanity. Another friend has a California license plate that reads, simply enough, TOMHANK. Wherever she drives, there he is: the lovable Hollywood star of such films as Forrest Gump and Sully, Tom Hank.
These masters of the vanity license plate scheme triumphed where the plaintiff in case of SHTHPNS, coming before the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in 2011, did not. Paula S. Perry, a resident of Montpelier, Vermont, appealed a 2000 district court decision that said the DMV had not violated her First Amendment rights when they’d revoked a personal license plate that they’d originally approved, claiming to have issued the allegedly profane plate in error.
But then, according to Perry’s lawsuit, the Vermont DMV had approved “CASHIT, TRASHIT, SHTRBUG, SHTZER, IRSHITL, DUMPRUN, COWPIES, ECOLI, POOPER, TOOT, BM, MERDE, [and] SHHAD,” so how could they revoke SHTHPNS? The judges of the 2nd Circuit were, again, not sympathetic. Not only was it possible, they explained in their ruling, that these other plates had been issued in error, but “the relevant difference between ‘shit’ and ‘pooper,’ for instance, is not the so-called ‘cuteness’ of the word ‘pooper,’” — as Perry had argued — “but the fact that ‘shit’ is a profanity.”
Perry stayed on the case to win her license plate back for four years. But hey, shit happens. She never won her appeal. And while Perry’s stubborn battle to win back SHTHPNS indicates a distinct failure to live by her own motto, her passion is exactly what makes vanity license plates so sweet and good.
Last summer, while driving a friend’s car, I spotted the holy grail. I try my best to never put anyone in danger to add a prize to my collection, especially when driving a car generously loaned to me, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try to capture it. Crossing the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, I leaned forward with one hand on my camera, the other on the wheel, and grabbed the perfect shot: VNTY PLT. I briefly considered retiring from the game, having found the best of the best, the metacommentary on the benign hobby of a lifetime. But a vanity license plate hunter never quits. There are simply too many LEVLS2IT. ●
Dayna Evans is writer and license plate hunter in New York.