Vanity Reigns in Virginia Where Custom License Plates Are the Norm

The state has the highest number of personalized plates in the country. One artist set out to catalog them all.

By Jessie Schiewe

Personalized license plates are a way to show off your personality and sense of humor. (Art:  Hannah Buckman )

Personalized license plates are a way to show off your personality and sense of humor. (Art: Hannah Buckman)

When Jessica Sugerman moved to Virginia for graduate school, one of the first things she noticed was the preponderance of cars with personalized state license plates.

“I was like, ‘Why does every person here have a vanity plate?” Sugerman said. “It was absurd how many there were.”

It turned out she was onto something. According to some surveys, Virginia has the highest number of registered vanity license plates than in any other state in the U.S. Out of every six cars, you’ll find at least one personalized plate.

Money is to credit for this feat. It costs only $10 to apply for a novelty license plate in Virginia — a remarkably lower rate than most other states. In California, for example, the cheapest custom plates — the Legacy Plate and the Environmental Plate — cost $50 and $53 to obtain, and come with an additional yearly renewal fee of $40 and $43, respectively.

Like in most states, those who want Virginia custom license plates must still abide by an ever-growing array of rules delineating what words and phrases can (and cannot) be used. The state’s DMV’s website says that it will reject plates that are “profane, obscene, or vulgar in nature, sexually explicit or graphic, excretory-related.” In 2016, they put the kibosh on plates with messages, like “DETHBOX,” “INEED2P,” “V8SLAYR,” and “86ISIS.”

Still, a number of questionable plates have managed to slip through the cracks over the years, many of which Sugerman documented and posted to Instagram under the name the Vanity Plate Project. She started the account in April 2017 as part of a school project and quickly became enthralled with the hunt of looking for clever license plates in Virginia, snapping more than 1,000 photographs of cars emblazoned with phrases, such as “PRAIZ GD,” “TTLY-OK,” and “IAMLATE.”

Plates like “INHEAVN” and “STEPDAD” particularly tickled Sugerman, she said, “because, why? Like, why would you put that on your car?” She was also surprised by the number of cultural references she saw. She saw nods to pop singers in plates like “RUDE GRL” and “POKRF8CE,” and hints at favorite TV shows in “SH4RK WK,” “HODOR,” and “DWTN ABY.” Everyone’s favorite warlock, Harry Potter, also got shoutouts with plates like “DRKHLOW,” “DEMNTOR,” and “DRK ARTS.”

Thanks to her love for word puzzles — “Give me a crossword and I’m a happy person” — challenging plates, like “IVCHN8,” “LOOSEAL,” and “APLAWS,” were easy for Sugerman to figure out. The only plate that stumped her was “FF0000,” though she was eventually able to decipher it, as well.

“I thought it was a spoof for a while, and then I realized one day that it’s the Hex code for the shade of red that the car is,” Sugerman said. “And I was like, ‘That’s amazing. That’s a cool inside joke.’ ”

In an effort to learn more about the people behind Virginia’s personalized plates, Sugerman made business cards for the Vanity Plate Project that she would hand out or leave on people’s windshields. She ended up meeting a few of them, such as the 20-year-old guy who had the license plate “UDOWN.”  

“He ended up just being this really nice guy who’s open to anything,” Sugerman said. “He let me come talk to him when he was on a date, I think.”

She also went to the home of an older woman with the license plate “LISTMAKR” who turned out to be — shocker — an avid list maker.

“She showed us binders and binders and binders of all the lists she’s made over the years. She saved them all, including grocery lists and shopping lists. She told me, ‘If I don’t make the lists, I just can’t sleep at night.’ ”

Sugerman later compiled the interviews she did into a documentary film for her class. Now that Sugerman no longer lives in Virginia, she’s taken a break from posting on Instagram, and it’s unclear what the future of the Vanity Plate Project is. Regardless, she’s glad she created it, because if anything, it serves as a funny reminder of her final semester in school.

“It’s actually a really cool memory book of my time in Richmond,” she said. “Like, I remember when I saw “YMCA” across from the YMCA, and I was so happy. It’s just the little things that stood out to me.”

Check out the gallery below, showing some of the funniest vanity license plates Sugerman saw while in Virginia:


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