New 'whale tail' license plate makes a big splash

Laguna Beach graphic artist Bill Atkins and Contra Costa County landscape painter Elizabeth Robinette Tyndall were feted Tuesday as the California Coastal Commission officially announced its new "whale tail" license plate.

Atkins is the second Laguna artist to be involved in a specialty license plate featuring the tail of a humpback whale. Atkins was the star attraction at a press conference at Dana Point Harbor — the same day that a pod of rarely seen blue whales was reportedly passing by that area. Tyndall appeared at a Northern California event, and a third event — without the artists — was held in Santa Monica.

Atkins said he was happy to be able to talk about the license plate project that he worked on for a number of months, but had to keep under wraps until the official announcement.

"I hope this whale tail is as successful as the original one," Atkins said. "I personally would have gone with a California gray whale, which are so visible along the coast, but they wanted another humpback."

The newly minted plates are being offered to the first 1,000 buyers at a discount rate of $25, 50% off the regular price of $50, or $25 off the price of a personalized plate, normally $98, plus two tickets to a California aquarium.

The new whale tail replaces one designed by marine artist Wyland and donated to the state nearly 15 years ago. Since 1997, 200,000 of those plates were sold — more than any other specialty license plate — generating $60.2 million and more than 400 grants to environmental organizations, according to the commission.

Wyland, who started his career in Laguna Beach and still has a studio in the city, was angered that the commission would not give donations from the whale plate sales to his foundation and in 2009 ordered the commission to stop using the image. The Wyland plate was available until July 1, and on July 12 the Coastal Commission voted to issue a Declaration of Appreciation to Wyland in gratitude for his contribution, according to the commission.

"While we are grateful to Wyland for his donation over many years, we opted to retire the plate," said California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas in a press statement. "This presented an exciting opportunity to freshen the look of the license plate, inspire new interest and get the public involved."

The new license plate was created as a team effort, Atkins said. He and Tyndall each won a $1,000 award, and Atkins, a digital designer, was paid for time spent coming up with the final product.

"I created more than 70 different concepts," Atkins said. "It was a job."

The two artists, selected after a rigorous competition involving 300 applicants, were asked to meet together in San Francisco at Coastal Commission offices to begin the creative process, Atkins said.

Atkins used his digital skills and worked with Tyndall's paintings to create the final image of an upright humpback tail against a bright sky, with water droplets.

In contrast to the verbal agreement between Wyland and the commission, Atkins said each artist who submitted to the competition had to sign a statement that the work belonged to the commission.

Atkins has been a Laguna Beach artist since the 1970s, starting out at the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Art Festival, and eventually opening up his own digital art studio, where he creates posters for celebrities, banners and other works.

He recently won a competition to design a banner for the City Council chambers, and two years ago designed a poster to help launch the Sister Cities Assn., which links Laguna Beach and Menton, France. He also teaches graphic design at Irvine Valley College.

His posters can be found at the Vintage Poster gallery and his website is

To order a whale tail license plate, visit

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