To say that in Los Angeles your car is an extension of your identity might be the understatement of the century. Survey the 405, the 10, the 110 — take your pick — and you’ll see nothing but idiosyncrasies switching lanes. It doesn’t matter the color or make of the whip. We’re all just a bunch of personalities on wheels.
No aspect of a vehicle exemplifies this more than a vanity license plate. The vanity plate is both a first impression and a final thought. In a city where people love to see and be seen, the vanity plate literally speaks to you from the next lane or parking spot.
There’s something remarkable — endearing or strange, depending on whom you ask — about vanity plates and the people who rock them. What would you pay $49 to put on your bumper? The answer reveals a lot about what Angelenos hold near and dear. The vanity plate, at its core, is about representation, artifice. It is how a person wants the world, and swarming traffic, to see them.
For this project, we spoke to the owners of 19 vanity license plates. They shared their plates and the stories behind them. One father wanted to commemorate an off-roading experience with his son. A woman wanted to pay tribute to her favorite Canadian pop diva. And for one couple, it’s a call to be kind to one another. Here’s to California drivers and the plates they want you to see. — Jacob Moscovitch
Derek Powell & Bobbie Braden: ILYVVVM
Mother and son racing enthusiasts
In 1989, Derek Powell was attending boarding school in Pennsylvania. “I would get on the phone with my mom, and she’d want to conclude the conversation with ‘I love you,’” he said. “And being a 14-year-old in an all-boys boarding school, I wouldn’t say it back.” ILY became the compromise, which spread to their letters and grew into ILYVM (very much) and ILYVVVM.
Thirty years later, Powell had gotten mom Bobbie Braden into driving on tracks. Braden had no problem driving fast cars — her first new car was a 1967 Pontiac GTO with a four-speed manual transmission — but her Audi A4 wasn’t built for the track. Powell found a very discounted, like-new orange Porsche on eBay, flew to Jacksonville, Fla., to pick it up and drove it back to California. As he prepared to register it in California, he thought, “You know, I want to get a plate that celebrates this milestone for us,” he said.
When Braden moved to Arizona a few years ago, the car was reregistered with a standard license plate. Powell said that his mother recently moved back to California because she’s no longer able to live on her own. During the process of relocating her, he discovered that she’d saved the “ILYVVVM” plates, which are now back on the car. — Arit John
Rafael the Magician: R I P
Magician and illusionist
Since he was a teenager, Rafael has surrounded himself with “all things spooky, scary and dark.” As a kid, often wearing all-black clothing, he listened to dark wave music — an eerie sounding musical genre that emerged from bands like Depeche Mode, Joy Division and the Cure in the late ‘70s.
For Rafael, who prefers to go by Rafael the Magician, Depeche Mode paired with Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” means childhood.
Rafael, who now lives in East L.A., has never lost that inner kid. Today, he performs magic tricks at school assemblies, book fairs and private parties and educates kids about anti-bullying and the importance of reading.
Although he uses a separate car for work, he was stoked to snag his “R I P” license plate more than 13 years ago.
“It all works into the image of who I am,” he said, sporting all black — of course. — JM
Drew & Nikki Patrlja-Bienemann: O HIBUD & HEYFREN
A cinematographer and restaurateur
Their main goal: be friendly. Their license plates: “O HIBUD” and “HEYFREN.”
“So many people on the road are just stressed out in traffic,” Drew Patrlja-Bienemann said as he drove his beige 4Runner. “Getting a little hello is always a good thing.”
The couple, who live in Glendale, had their first date at this very In-N-Out. As they enjoyed another round of burgers and fries, they said their plates are an outward expression of joy for the people driving around them. As artists, their work surrounds that same joy and beauty of the everyday.
“They are the perfect plates for us, especially my wife,” Drew added. “ She is an extremely welcoming, open, kind person.” — JM
Sheldon Neal: DADS MUD
Retired IT manager and very proud dad
Nearly 30 years ago, Sheldon Neal took his son camping in Big Bear. He drove his ‘93 Nissan Pathfinder through the trails, covering the sides of the SUV in mud. One man’s dirty vehicle is a child’s blank canvas; Neal’s son wrote ‘my dad’s mud’ on the side of the Pathfinder.
“I said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that; you’ll scratch the paint,’” recalled Neal, a 66-year-old retired IT manager from Irvine. “And then when I got home and washed the Pathfinder, there were scratches all down the side of it from all the brush I’d driven through.”
Neal felt bad and ordered the “DADS MUD” plate. “He was very excited,” Neal said of his son. — AJ
Aspen Cole: ACT3 SN1
UCLA-trained actress and academic advisor at USC Drama
On her first car — a black and yellow VW Beetle — Aspen Cole went with “PIKAPII,” a nod to Pikachu from Pokemon. For her current car, she wanted something that nodded to her roots as a theater kid.
“ACT3 SN1" refers to one of the most recognizable monologues Shakespeare ever wrote, Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech. “It’s iconic,” said Cole, 27.
For Cole the plate isn’t so much an ode to “Hamlet” — her favorite Shakespeare play is actually “Macbeth” — but a way to stay connected to theater and acting. “I’m not professionally acting, but I’m still involved in theater in a lot of ways, and it’s just my way of always having that part of me there,” she said. — AJ
Eric Frazier: ERIC F
When Eric Frazier, 29, moved to sunny California and ordered a new license plate, he really wanted to avoid the basic numbers and letters. In an attempt to flip the switch from shy to more outgoing, he landed on “ERIC F.”
“This is truly a sense of self-expression and my individuality,” he said. “As an introverted person, this is me trying to be more bold and extroverted.”
Frazier’s move to L.A. stirred a desire to show off his identity at work, in his personal life and on the streets of Marina del Rey, where he now lives. He even has a Facebook photo of himself mocking a phone call and writing emails from the trunk of his Audi — black and yellow plate peeking out under his legs.
“This is my car. This is my plate. This is mine. This is me.” — JM
Timothy Hayes: KRL MRX
EMT and community organizer with Ground Game LA. Self-identified communist
Timothy Hayes wants to start a conversation. As an avid believer and self-prescribed scholar on all things Karl Marx, he invites political chitchat.
“Marx is someone who I follow, read and write about, but I also kind of want people to be thinking about him,” said Hayes, 40, of Palms. “It’s a shame more people don’t know who he is.”
When he purchased the plate in April 2020, he did it as a snarky joke. But soon after, he realized strangers had a lot of questions. Recently, Hayes has noticed increased positive reactions such as fists in the air and smiles.
“It’s part of a larger conversation that we’re beginning to have as people understand how broken the economy is, especially as we’re coming out of a pandemic where millions of people were left to fend for themselves. … The way that we’re living through capitalism now isn’t the only way we need to exist.” — JM
Susan Forrest: LGBTFAM
Former director of Art House, an LGBT recovery bridge housing program
Before Susan Forrest started working in L.A. County’s office of diversion and re-entry, she wrote a recovery bridge housing program for LGBT individuals being treated for drug and alcohol addiction. Forrest would drive patients and wanted her license plate to offer a different version of the LGBTQ experience.
“When there’s representation, it doesn’t usually include family, unless it’s some harrowing coming out story or something,” said Forrest, a 56-year-old Pasadena resident. “Just wanted to sort of counter that narrative a little bit.”
The family in Forrest’s license plate is multi-meaning. It’s family in the broader context but also in terms of her immediate family: She identifies as lesbian and her adopted daughters were the nieces of transgender advocate Alexis Rivera, who died in 2012. Isabella Rodriguez, who posed with Forrest and her daughter Alyssa Betcher-Forrest, is part of their chosen family.
Forrest said she gets a lot of honks and thumbs-up for her plate. It’s also reassuring to the people she works with. “A lot of my clients, a lot of their substance use was rooted in families not accepting them,” she said. The plate is a way to let them know: “They have a family. They’re OK. They’re good,” she said. — AJ
Sam Whitney: C M Y K
Fine art printer
“CMYK” stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black).
For the last five or six years it’s also been Sam Whitney’s license place. The 38-year-old, who owns Giclee LA, a fine art print shop, grew up surrounded by art; his mother is a fine art picture framer.
“When I was younger I was into a lot of photography and producing large-format printing,” he said. “[I] saved up and was able to purchase a couple of printers.” — AJ
Christina Honchell: HERONZZ
Avid bird watcher and heron lover
“Bird watching is a very peaceful hobby,” Christina Honchell said on a call from Point Reyes, where she and her husband were staying at the Black Heron Inn. While they were mainly there to enjoy the beautiful scenery, she couldn’t help but notice the turkey vultures, egrets, geese, ducks and, of course, herons roaming around.
A few years ago, Honchell stumbled into birdwatching online. She’d started off watching hawk nests but realized that wasn’t for her. “In a hawk nest, things get torn apart ... the way they eat is a little bloody,” said Honchell, a 67-year-old retired church administrator from Pasadena. “So somebody said, ‘Well, try the heron nest; it’s a little more peaceful.’ And it was.”
Her “HERONZZ” license plate isn’t just a tribute to her love of the long-legged water birds, but also for the international community of bird watchers she’s bonded with over the years, starting with that first heron nest. Honchell said that around 30 of them regularly meet in Ithaca, N.Y., where the heron they watched years ago once lived. “I would say the people who’ve been the closest to me over these past few years have all been people from that community,” she said. — AJ
Sarah Dietz: MORE TK
Owner & operator in L.A. hospitality
Originally, Sarah Dietz wanted her license plate to read “TK,” writer shorthand for “to come” or I-will-fill-this-in-eventually. It was taken, but she soon realized she preferred the symbolism of her second choice.
“TK is obviously just funny and a joke,” said Dietz, a 31-year-old restaurant owner. “But I also really liked the positive aspect of ‘MORE TK’ and the daily reminder that there is always more coming.”
Dietz’s plate is also a nod to her parents — journalists who met at New West magazine, New York Magazine‘s short-lived West Coast sister publication — and the stories they told her growing up about the industry and the world in general.
“So much of having a kid is explaining what everything means to them — and the exciting thing about having writers do that is that their explanations are just great stories,” she said. — AJ
Steve Madison: 4THPRES
Lawyer and Pasadena city councilor
In 1809, James Madison became the fourth president of the United States. A little more than 200 years later, Pasadena City Councilman Steve Madison marked the occasion with a new license plate: “4THPRES.”
“It’s kind of a little pop quiz, in a way, on American history,” Madison said. “Some people get it right off. ... In fairness, I think it’s probably the folks that know me already.”
For the record, there’s no relation. His grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1920s from Italy. After dealing with discrimination in New York, home of Madison Square Garden and Madison Avenue, he decided to change his last name from Giacquinto to something more American.
“Sometimes people will ask me, ‘Does your family name go all the way back to James Madison and the Mayflower before that?’ And I’ll sometimes say, tongue in cheek, ‘You know, almost. Not quite, but almost.” — AJ
Shaun Kellogg: C SEXY 3
Runs AMG SoCal Lounge, a hub for Mercedes-AMG owners around L.A.
Shaun Kellogg comes from a long line of car guys. His grandfather collected historic cars, and his father owned a Mercedes-AMG C63. A few years ago he decided to get the same car. “I just pulled the trigger and bought it one day, and I’ve had it ever since,” he said.
Kellogg said he’s always been drawn to AMG, the high-performance subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz. Six years ago he and 10 other men started an AMG owners club that goes to car events like Cars & Coffee and hosts Supercars by the Sea in Huntington Beach.
His license plate is part tribute, part play on words. “I just kind of figured ‘You know what? Why not have a funny license plate to go along with the car,’” he said.
So what makes the C63 sexy? “Honestly it’s the V8 engine that it has,” he said. “It’s just got a V8 rumble, just a growl that you can’t really reproduce from other types of engines.” — AJ
Stuart & Nicole Waldman: FI★TLUX
A chamber of commerce president and a lobbying firm CEO, married with two kids
It all goes back to an anniversary present. On the two-year mark of their first date, Stuart Waldman, 52, bought Nicole Kuklok-Waldman, 43, a license plate. The plate reads “FIAT LUX,” which means “Let there be light.” (A star symbol replaces the “A.”)
“I bought it for her since she was a recent graduate of University of California, Berkeley, and that is their motto,” Stuart said driving home to Van Nuys. “I joke, but my thoughtfulness is probably the reason why we’re married today.”
The plate has hopped from car to car over the years. Today, as a couple of 22 years, they keep the plate on Nicole’s white Tesla, which she adores. Although the car is pearly and pristine, the original plate remains rugged — just how they like it. — JM
Lauren Glucksman: CELDION
Works in the L.A. music industry
Vanity plates aren’t as big in the U.K., where Lauren Glucksman grew up, but her family loves hers, a tribute to the Canadian pop diva who provided the soundtrack for many of their road trips and vacations.
“She’s just continued to be this timeless icon, both in music and culture, and just someone who brings people a lot of joy,” Glucksman, a 33-year-old Los Angeles resident who works in the music industry, said of Céline Dion. “I thought it would just be something that people would smile when they see on the highway if they’re sitting in traffic.”
It’s worked. Glucksman has spotted people taking photos of the plate and once someone shouted at her “My Car Will Go On,” a reference to one of Dion’s most popular songs. (Glucksman’s personal favorite is “Make You Happy” from the 1996 album “Falling Into You.”)
A few years ago, Glucksman drove with the CELDION plate to see Dion perform at her Vegas residency. “It was incredible,” she said. — AJ
Robert Heppler: NXIVM
Chief marketing officer at a company
Before he got his vanity plate, Robert Heppler and his friends would send pictures in their group chat of clever plates they saw around the city. It got him thinking about what his would say. “You want to wow the world,” he said. “You want to be shocking. You want to be sensational.”
He considered, then rejected, a few options — a call to “NVR4GT” 9/11, a “NOTPOOR” plate he decided sounded “really pretentious” — before settling on the name of the Keith Raniere-led sex cult just as the news of sexual abuse allegations was breaking. He took a screenshot of the mock-up and sent it to the group chat.
“Everyone I showed that to all died; they were like, ‘This is hilarious,’” he said. “And I felt because it was so early, because the movies hadn’t come out yet, that they couldn’t ban it.”
Heppler’s provocative sense of humor hasn’t translated well. As awareness of NXIVM rose, the reactions to the plate grew angrier. “I don’t know if harassed is the right word, but you know in the movie ‘Inception’ when all the population starts turning on them when they’re in their dreams?” he said. “I’ll see their eyes read it, and then I’ll see their brain say, ‘Oh, my God, this makes me mad.’”
People take pictures and glare, someone left a bag of dog poop on his windshield, his driver’s side mirror was smashed in (this may have been a coincidence) and he suspects a woman got into a car accident while trying to take a photo of his plate. The tipping point came when parents at his son’s private school complained about the plate and his car was banned from campus.
He’s in the process of getting a new plate, a reference to Orlando Magic player Mo Bamba and the hit Sheck Wes song named after him. Heppler liked the idea of a professional athlete walking onto the court on his first day to one of the biggest songs in the world, a song that happens to be about him. “I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the history of time,” he said, adding: “Anyway, I thought it’d be a little less scandalous and that I won’t get my windows smashed.” — AJ
Stepan Mekhitarian: DRK KGHT & SPDY SNS
Educator by day, superhero and promoter of manual transmission by night
Stepan Mekhitarian has had his “DRK KGHT” plate for nearly 20 years. When he bought his Porsche Boxster Spyder he decided to keep the superhero theme going with “SPDY SNS” (as in “my Spidey sense is tingling!”). But his real passion is driving manual transmission cars and encouraging others to do the same.
“You kind of feel like a hero when you’re driving one,” said Mekhitarian, 40, an innovation director for the Glendale Unified School District.
Mekhitarian, his brother and their like-minded friends like to drive up Angeles Crest or to Big Sur. Neither of his cars is particularly powerful, but the experience of pushing away distractions and just connecting to car is irreplaceable.
“You focus on the driving, forget everything else, and you’re involving both hands, both feet,” he said. “It’s an almost spiritual experience … and I feel like a lot of people miss it.”
Mekhitarian’s garage is a tribute to car and driving culture. There’s a collage of classic cars, curtains made out of a fabric found on old-school car seats, and a mural of a mountain pass on the Swiss/Italian border that he and his brother drove. A perfect home for two well-loved cars. — AJ