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California replaces Wyland's whale tail license plate

Muralist Wyland wanted 20% of California's profits from sales of license plates with his whale painting as the backdrop. The state held a contest to replace it.

July 15, 2011|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • California will begin issuing its new whale-tail license plates starting Aug. 2. The new image replaces one by the Laguna Beach artist Wyland.
California will begin issuing its new whale-tail license plates starting… (California Coastal Commission )

For years, a painting of a whale's tail splashing out of the gray, misty ocean has been one of the most popular license plates in California. Nearly 200,000 have been sold, raising millions for coastal and environmental conservation programs.

But the artwork by Wyland was deep-sixed after the Laguna Beach muralist's request for 20% of the state's profits from the plates to fund his environmental foundation was rebuffed.

Rather than tangle with the artist over the rights to the painting, titled "Tails of Great Whales," the state decided to retire the plate instead and hold a contest to replace it.

The new plate to debut Aug. 2 is a crisper, brighter rendering of a whale's tail that California Coastal Commission officials say more closely resembles an actual whale — a humpback — than Wyland's more dreamy design.

Tens of thousands of the whale-tail plates can be spotted on California roads, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. They are some of the most sought-after of the state's 10 specialty plates, which include depictions of such state treasures as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. Since the plates were introduced in 1997, sales and renewals have raised more than $60 million for coastal and environmental conservation programs.

Proceeds from the plates, which cost $50 more than standard plates and an extra $40 to renew each year, are distributed as grants to hundreds of groups for coastal restoration projects, beach cleanups and marine education programs.

After the dispute began with Wyland three years ago, the state Coastal Commission, one of the beneficiaries of the program, sponsored a contest to design a new plate, with instructions to include a whale tail and a California coastal motif.

After sifting through the work of more than 300 contestants, judges settled on a hybrid of the top two entries, one by a painter, the other by a graphic designer. The result is a more vibrant backdrop: a sunnier sky with just a few clouds and a tail splashing droplets of water into a deep blue sea.

"This new design looks like a bright day that is very evocative of California," said Christiane Parry, director of public programs for the Coastal Commission. "The old one was more hazy and moody, but this is a little more optimistic."

The second-generation plate boasts a few other practical improvements. The new tail is more true to life, based on humpback whale flukes, and it takes up less space on the plate so it won't be covered up by registration stickers.

Steve Creech, project director of the Wyland Foundation, called the new image "a very poor imitation of a Wyland artwork" but said the artist did not plan to "continue to make a big fuss about this."

"Here you have an artist that basically contributes something on which he bases his livelihood, which he loaned to the State of California for 20 years, and basically he's shunted aside with little more than a thank you," said Creech.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles is accepting advance orders for the new plates by mail only until Aug. 2, when the state will start issuing them and recognize the winning artists at news conferences in Santa Monica, Dana Point and San Francisco.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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