There are two things Nevadans love—customized license plates, and the attention they draw
Thu, Jun 3, 2010 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
Last year, Dana Angioni stood in line at the DMV, like more than a million other Nevadans do each year, to renew her car’s registration. In her hands she clutched PIPSQUK, the custom license plate she’d proudly sported for a decade, through three previous cars and her current Nissan Altima. She was there to surrender the plate.
See, her husband thinks his 5-foot-1-inch wife’s nickname is adorable, but it’s less so when he’s the one driving. Then it causes confusion. Raises questions.
Angioni understood; that was why she was at the DMV, to make life easier. If she got a standard Nevada license plate, with those randomly selected numbers and letters and no predetermined meaning, they could switch cars with ease. Except it wasn’t that easy.
“I just couldn’t part with it,” Angioni says almost a year later. She and her car are still PIPSQUK. Instead of surrendering the plates, she simply renewed them and screwed them back into their rightful place. Her registration is up again soon and she’s convinced she will put off surrendering the plate yet again. Hubby will just have to forgive her.
If cars can be extensions of ourselves, then a custom license plate can hold the significance of a tattoo. It’s a billboard to the world, a soapbox, a forum for inside jokes. It tells a personal story, and even the seemingly mundane can be difficult to part with.
Exactly 171,053 vanity plates were registered with the Nevada DMV as of March 31. That’s 8.2 percent of the total population of license plates, which stands at 2,094,828.
Stefan Lonce, who has been working on a book about license plates, says this makes the Silver State fourth in the nation when it comes to the number of vanity license plates per capita. Only Virginia, New Hampshire and Illinois are vainer, if you can believe that.
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Virginia’s reign may very well be related to the fact that it charges only $10 for a personalized plate, but the list doesn’t boil down completely to cost, Lonce tells me. Many states are comparable in price to Nevada, which charges $36 for the initial fee on a vanity plate, but have far fewer personalized plates.
“I think it has a lot to do with an area reaching a tipping point. All of a sudden people start seeing all these plates around them and start thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I should do that,’” offers Lonce.
Of course, there could be more to it. New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live Free or Die,” shrieks of individualism, as does much of Nevada’s heritage. Could our embrace of custom plates hint toward our collective spirit, something to do with our open skies and the reinventive nature of moving west?
“You really need to be creative to put a message on a vanity plate, especially a good one,” Lonce says. “Nevada could just be full of creative people.”
Does that mean the driver of the nondescript sedan marked LADIMAN is calling himself a ladies’ man—or a tranny? Does MERKIN refer to the driver’s last name—or a pubic wig? Why is there an Infiniti G35 with the plate PORCHE? And SMAKTHS—seriously?
I decided to dig deeper.
I traipsed through full parking lots—Downtown on First Friday, a mid-semester weekday at UNLV and two shopping malls—and left notes and business cards on more than 100 cars sporting vanity plates. As I gently lifted up their windshield wipers, I wondered how many would call me back. Vanity plates are vain by their very nature, friends suggested; people will want to talk.
They are right, I suppose. My response rate was around 20 percent. Not too shabby, though admittedly it is barely a scratch on the surface of the sea of Nevada’s vanity license plates.
“Metro has pulled me over to ask me what the heck my license plate means,” says Ray Galaza, who drives SHOTEN. “I asked him what I did wrong. He said, ‘Nothing.’ I asked him why he was pulling me over. He admitted he was curious about my plate.”
The answer has two parts. First, Galaza is a Buddhist and Shoten is the highest Buddha of them all. Second, his car is the 10th Ford Taurus SHO built in 1995.
Of course, if you’re not a Buddhist or a car enthusiast, neither of those answers is obvious. The questions are understandable, and Galaza says he gets them all the time.
So, what did the cop think of his explanation?
“He was impressed it was the 10th SHO built,” Galaza says. “He didn’t care much about the Buddhist thing.”
Seven characters simply isn’t a lot of room, so saying much of anything on a license plate is difficult. It may be getting easier, though.
Modern forms of communication have forced us to conserve space and embrace what Lonce calls “shortspell.” Examples are everywhere, u kno? Online, user names are often made with a limited number of characters, and chats are filled with BRBs, LOLs and WTFs. Offline, personal ads in newspapers push abbreviations to the edge of understanding: MtF seeks BBW 4 FWB, N/D, plz. As we become a society of 160-character text messages and 140-character Tweet limits, we are subconsciously getting better at the language of license plates.
The story of LTLJEEP is pretty straightforward. It’s attached to a Jeep Compass, the smallest model of the carmaker’s offerings, and driver Susan Summers is only 5 feet tall. Other stories are open to interpretation, like the DF9DIVA registered to Danette Parks’ Volkswagen Passat. Does that translate to the playful question “define diva?” Or more of a statement, a sassy “da fine diva.” (Parks says either interpretation works, as long as the handle is memorable.)
Then, there’s Clarissa Grayson, VRGN4LF. Plates like hers reach a whole new level. The translation is easy enough, “virgin for life,” but it leaves a wake of questions (Who would advertise that? Why?!) and bewilderment (That has to be a joke, right?). It is the type of plate that people take cell-phone photos of, even on the freeway. The ridiculousness is too much, especially in a city known for sex and sin. Everyone laughs, though nobody has asked if the statement is true.
Grayson’s catchphrase came about during her sorority days at San Diego State University. The school is known for its promiscuity, she says, and she was one of a small minority of people holding out until marriage. “I’d joke that I would be a virgin forever,” she says. “Then, I just thought it would be funny to get it on a plate.”
She figured it might have a practical benefit, too.
“When I moved to Vegas, people told me, ‘It isn’t a matter of if your car gets hit. It’s when.’ I thought, hey, maybe I can get the drunk drivers focusing on my plate and they won’t hit me.”
Of course, she didn’t consider drivers fumbling for cell phones to capture her plate on the road.
Putting something, anything, on your license plate means shedding the uniform anonymity of a state-issued plate. It changes the rules. Did Grayson know going in that nobody would ask her to defend her stance on premarital sex? No. Even Grayson admits that she harbored a tiny fear the plate might attract the wrong attention, from a stalker ... or worse.
Grayson got married last July and, with her vows, outgrew her status as potential virgin for life. Now back in California, she is considering getting a different custom plate. Her husband suggests some variation of “TURNED OUT.”
She laughs at the evolution of her inside joke, but when I ask her if she will miss VRGN4LF, her answer is immediate. “Oh god, yes,” she says. “That plate was awesome.”
Vanity plates may be intensely personal objects, but they are also state-sanctioned, which means there are limits to expression. Before you get your personal plate, you must “apply,” by explaining what the plate means. The individual technicians at the DMV windows then accept or deny, while questionable plates are sent to supervisors for review. More than 15,000 license plates are included on Nevada’s banned list, and that number does not include any plates denied immediately at the time of application.
All of this is done, in the DMV’s mind, in the name of public safety and cohesion. Though free-speech purists may call it censorship, scanning the list of banned plates easily raises questions. How would you react if you saw HIVPOS driving down the street? Would you forgive them for cutting you off? Or would you fear they’ll soon be the victim of a hate crime?
The state doesn’t want to find out.
Lonce points out the purpose of license plates is simply to register cars and drivers. The fact that the DMV allows people to personalize them might be viewed as a favor, if not a ploy to squeeze more money from drivers through specialized fees.
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Most of the rules for plates are fairly obvious. Nothing with “sexual, vulgar, derogatory, profane or obscene” connotations is allowed. (Whoever applied for WHORE, SMEGMAU and FATASS—sorry.) Drug, drug paraphernalia or gang references are also banned, including SMKNCRK and XSTACY, the latter of which was revoked from driver Stacy Moore after 19 years of ownership for possibly being a reference to Ecstasy. Political affiliations, like GOBAMA and OBAMA08, are also banned.
Then there’s JELLO, ICEMAN, THIS, BETTE and AUNT. Some appear to be possible copyright infringement, but otherwise no obvious legal explanations there.
The DMV began accepting complaint forms from concerned drivers in December 2007 and has since received 151 of them. The review committee consists of members from the DMV Special Plates section, the DMV director’s office and the Departments of Transportation, Public Safety and Cultural Affairs. So far, they have voted to recall 70 plates.
Sometimes the task is easy. The hundreds of applications with the number 69 included are quickly denied, along with things like BUTTSEX or IRANSUX. Some are trickier. The DMV revoked TP U BG after 17 years because someone figured out that, in court reporting language, TP can mean F and BG can mean K or CK.
Drivers unhappy that their vanity plates have been yanked can go through a series of appeals, which eventually leads to the Nevada Supreme Court.
Vindication is possible.
Take William Junge. In 1999, he successfully registered HOE as a license plate, after his first choice, TAHOE, was taken. He renewed each year without issue, until, in 2006, a DMV technician requested a review and a supervisor deemed HOE slang for “whore.” Their evidence: an entry on UrbanDictionary.com.
Junge took the ruling all the way to Nevada’s high court, which ruled in his favor. Turns out UrbanDictionary.com is not a definitive source for information, the proper spelling of the slang term is “ho,” and Junge’s intention were clearly a reference to Tahoe, as made evident by the driver’s Lake Tahoe specialized plate.
Robert Ensler is the type of guy who seeks attention. Our paths cross in the parking lot across from Trump International Tower, where we both attend a casting call for The Apprentice. I am playing the plucky reporter; he is impersonating The Donald. When he calls me later that day, he tells me he loves the fact that I left a note on his car.
Ensler runs an e-commerce site revolving around the Rat Pack, and is a Dean Martin impersonator by trade—he went to the casting call in order to draw attention to those projects. This is the same reason he’s had vanity license plates for more than a decade. In California he drove RATPAK3. When he relocated to Vegas in 2002 and had to register his car, he went online to see what options were available. Somehow he got what might be one of the most quintessentially Vegas plates in existence: SINATRA.
“It’s a piece-of-shit car with the coolest plate in town,” Ensler says.
He loves his SINATRA plate. So much so he’s turned down money his Frank-impersonating acquaintances have offered in exchange for it. What he doesn’t love is the dull grey 2001 Saturn SINATRA is registered to. Ensler knows the iconic plate is meant for something regal—a classic ’59 Cadillac, maybe. “I am embarrassed to have it on this car,” he concedes.
“I used to go to Rampart Casino to gamble, and once I met this guy, a retired hippie from Georgia. We were talking about the Rat Pack, and this guy says, ‘You know, there’s this piece-of-crap car driving around with SINATRA as a plate,’” Ensler recalls. “Me and my wife just started laughing, and I said, ‘Excuse me; that’s my car you’re insulting!’”
Friendly jabs aside, Ensler is just happy to have the plate at all. “I went to the DMV that day to get it. I stood in line for three hours,” he says. “I was blown away that it was even available.”
Ensler waited hours for what he proudly declares the coolest effing plate in town. Gina Giorgione waited far longer.
Her personal plate, GEEWIZZ, is a nod to the nickname her father has called her for as long as she can remember. It’s attached to a bright yellow Chevy Blazer (whose nickname, naturally, is Cheese Wizz), but it wasn’t always.
When she bought the Blazer, she attempted to get the plate, only to find out it was taken. Fast forward two and a half years. The original holder failed to renew the plate, so Giorgione scooped it up. She loves it, joking that she can imagine drivers saying, “GEEWIZZ, you’re going fast ...” as she passes them. Her father loves the little touch, too.
Sometimes Giorgione wonders about the original GEEWIZZ and whether their paths have ever crossed. Las Vegas is not that big, the born-and-raised Nevadan knows. We try to imagine what a conversation between GEEWIZZs might be like. What the plate meant to the original owner is bound to be different, and the reason he or she surrendered the plate might not be pleasant. Or maybe the two would just have a good laugh, followed by an awkward silence when they realized there was nothing beyond those seven letters that connected them.
Personalized license plates can be nicknames, idols or inside jokes, but there is a common thread of storytelling between them. Lonce, whose day job is as a newspaper editor, explains it to me this way: “Everyone is trying to tell a story. I have a platform. Most people don’t have a platform, so they use the bumper of their car.”