New CA License Plate Saves Whales, Angers Original Artist

August 8, 2011
California's New Whale Tail Plate. Image: California Coastal Commission

California's New Whale Tail Plate. Image: California Coastal Commission

Another week, another license plate controversy.

California has offered drivers a whale-themed license plate since 1997, when a Wyland-designed plate went on sale. The artist, famous for his marine-themed artwork, loaned his whale-tail image to the state for use on a plate funding coastal conservation and education programs.

After 11 years of seeing his image adorn some 200,000 cars, Wyland decided to ask California’s Coastal Commission, who benefits from the sale of the plate, for 20 percent of the proceeds. When they balked, Wyland asked the state to stop using his original artwork on their license plates.

Before you accuse Wyland of being in it for the cash, the money wasn’t destined for his own bank account. Instead, the 20 percent would go to fund the Wyland Foundation, which also offers educational programs aimed at preserving the oceans and protecting marine life. Since the plates have generated some $60.2 million for the California Coastal Commission (CCC) over the past 14 years, it’s clear that there’s a lot at stake.

To sidestep the issue, California and the CCC ran a contest soliciting new “save the whale tail” artwork for a “Protect Our Coast And Ocean” license plate. The two winners, who collaborated on the project, received a cash prize and complementary  license plate, but only after signing over a full release of their art to the state.

Here’s where the plot thickens: a Wyland Foundation spokesman was quoted as saying, “we, like many others, think the new image is a poor imitation of a Wyland artwork.”

California's Old Whale Tail Plate. Image: California Coastal Commission

California's Old Whale Tail Plate. Image: California Coastal Commission

We’re no art critics, but we’d argue that the two plates are similar only in depicting a whale’s tail. Wyland’s original features an overcast, fog-shrouded background, while the new plate features blue skies and sunshine. To our untrained eyes, the species of whales depicted look to be different as well, so we’d call this a non-issue.

If nothing else, the Wyland Foundation has gotten a lot of media exposure over the incident, which should translate into more money from benefactors. There’s something to be said for losing the battle, but winning the war.


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