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Artist's whale request causes a flap

The license plate's designer demands the state give his group 20% of the profits or stop using his work.

June 25, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

The Laguna Beach artist who created California's iconic whale-tail license plate is making a splash with state coastal officials, revoking the state's right to use his art after they snubbed his request to share profits from the image with his environmental group.

Wyland, the famed marine muralist whose paintings of ocean life envelop buildings around the world, let the state use his hazy blue image of a whale's flukes for environmentally themed license plates 14 years ago in what state officials describe as a "handshake deal."

The artist approached the California Coastal Commission several months ago asking for 20% of the state's annual profits from the plates to fund his nonprofit ocean conservation foundation. California earns about $3.77 million a year from the plates, but the Coastal Commission receives only a third of the funds: about $15 for each new plate sold. The rest goes to other state environmental programs.

"At the end of the day, the whale tail is my art and my idea, and I own the rights to my intellectual property," Wyland said in an interview Tuesday from his Laguna Beach studio. "I won't be stepped on: I'm sticking up for artists' rights, for the common person. I'm sticking up for the oceans and the coast big-time. We're not going away."

In recent weeks, the two sides attempted to negotiate terms to preserve the use of the painting on license plates. According to Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas, the agency offered to give a $100,000 grant to Wyland's foundation each year for a decade in exchange for rights to the image, but talks fell through. Wyland, who goes by his last name only, says such an offer was never communicated.

Douglas termed Wyland's demand for 20% of the plate's sales "outrageous," adding that the state Legislature, not the commission, distributes the license plate funds among agencies. According to Douglas, Wyland gave his image to the state unconditionally.

The 51-year-old artist disputes that characterization: "I was being very generous in allowing them to use, to borrow one of my images for a period of time. It's not up to [Douglas] to determine what the time is -- it's up to the artist."

The image, one of Wyland's most famous, is titled "Tails of Great Whales."

An estimated 126,000 whale-tail plates are on California roads, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The money the commission gets from the plates, which cost $50 more than regular plates and an extra $40 to renew, is distributed among hundreds of groups for beach cleanups, education and wheelchairs that can navigate the sand. In 1995, the commission gave Wyland's group a $20,000 grant.

The DMV offers 11 specialty plates. Wyland's whale tail is one of the top-selling designs, along with the palm tree-lined Arts Council plate, said DMV spokesman Mike Marando.

The whale-tail plates have raised about $40.5 million for the state since their introduction in 1997.

While the state's conservation work has similarities to the Wyland Foundation, Wyland argues that his group is unique because it uses art to introduce people to ocean preservation.

"We reach an audience that's not ordinarily going to be receptive to an environmental message," he said.

Douglas counters that the free publicity afforded Wyland by the distribution of his work, complete with signature, is plenty.

"Maybe he hasn't gotten the money that they were looking at, but he's gotten lots of advertising," Douglas said.

But the whale-tail plate's popularity is no fluke. Wyland has painted 99 giant murals of ocean creatures internationally, including the 116,000-square-foot work covering the Long Beach Arena. An official artist for the U.S. Olympic team, Wyland plans to paint his 100th mural in Beijing this summer. Wyland also designed a similar whale plate for Florida; his foundation receives 10% of the profits.

"It's like lightning in a bottle," Wyland said of the piece on the California plate. "You can't just replace it by doing an imitation of it."

Wyland is considering taking legal action against the commission. The commission, however, isn't too concerned with hanging on to the name brand.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced legislation last week to allow the commission to find a replacement whale-tail design and still comply with restrictions against new specialty plates.

The DMV subsequently agreed to begin the search for a replacement artist, and Huffman, who has already received an offer from an artist to create a new whale tail for free, withdrew the proposition.

"People really buy these license plates because they really support the programs," Douglas said. "The notion that people wouldn't buy these plates if it weren't his art . . . There's sort of a self-aggrandizement factor here."

"I don't think there's going to be any problem finding a nice, aesthetic whale tail," Huffman said.

The commission's priority is to keep state-supported ocean conservation programs afloat, he said.

The prospect of losing funding "over a little spat like this, over royalties to an image, just seemed like a tragedy," Huffman said. "It's really best that the two parties just part ways. . . . This is a bad marriage, and it's time for it to end."

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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