The Lost Art Of License Plates

Contrary to popular belief, license plates aren’t of the utmost importance. They’re afterthoughts required by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Sometimes a license plate will showcase personality, raise awareness, and the seldom few who take genuine interest in license plates will stop and appreciate what they’ve just seen. But there’s more to this consistency of license plates, and especially the creative nature in which they can generate interest for the brief moment your focus is more or less forced to behold the sight attached to the car in front of you. 

License plates are cool. Those who don’t want to admit it have only been broken down by overexposure to a commute or negligence to see the distinct differences all around them. 

Colorado has one of the best designs in the country. Green background; white mountains. Simplicity at its finest. We’re not Alaska or Hawaii, but the standard issue plates of Colorado are a colorful and unique embodiment of the state known for the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. The wide expanses of cascading mountain ranges surmises Colorado’s entire identity to the rest of the nation, a stereotypical characterization of Coloradoans that is dwindling in a variety of different ways.

While a car is often an extension of the driver, a license plate is something else entirely. License plates are another insignificant way we—but mainly our vehicles—are identified. License plates ultimately warrant more attention than they should receive because of our consistent exposure to them. Sometimes we customize them and let the world know who we are, or maybe our mantra, or an emotion we all feel when we’ve been jammed bumper-to-bumper in traffic on I-25 for forty minutes and only one lane seems to be moving. We use them to promote causes, let everyone know they are a Greyhound lover, or really love Pueblo Chile, or do more than everyone else to support groups with disabilities.

Or, like most people, a license plate is just a thin plate of aluminum embossed with a series of numbers and letters that mean close to nothing. It’s something many have, yet often becomes overlooked. 

 Like other states, Colorado has a variety of plate designs that stray from the classic green and white, and most of these do not stray far from the aesthetic perpetuated by the normal plates. The DMV has modernized these plates in the past decade or so, and yet their latest attempt to make something as irrelevant as a license plate interesting again has caused a bit of damage to Colorado’s brand. 

You’ve without a doubt seen the new license plates. The sheer number of drivers with them seems to grow by the day. The luscious green color has been drained and replaced with an entirely black background, but there are also more incredibly unique options for this same style of plate with a solid red, blue, or green background. As much as I want to hate these new plates and their complete void of creativity, the answer as to why these plates are more apparent than ever is an easy one: they’re vintage.

Colorado DMV

According to the Colorado DMV, the new license plates are historic designs from 1914, 1915, 1945, and from 1965-1999, all years in which nothing bad or horrible was ever occurring in the United States or the world at all. The proceeds from selecting these plates goes towards the Colorado Disability Funding Committee which provides support for programs benefiting Colorado’s disability community. Any driver can get a blacked out license plate for the low price of a one-time $60 issuance fee and a $25 annual fee which goes towards the CDFC, but if you want a custom plate, that’ll be an extra $50 every year on top of the $25 renewal fee. Naturally, the $50 for custom plates does not go towards charity. 

Well, am I the asshole now for hating these new license plates? Perhaps you can’t condemn the bland design of them because they are A: historic, and B: go to a good cause. But I won’t let the DMV off of the hook this easily. There’s much more at stake here than just raising money for Colorado’s disability community funding. The integrity of the state of Colorado and every Coloradoan is at risk of being lost and joining the likes of a state like California, where their license plates are almost as hollow as a Californian’s soul is. Exactly the kind of people we are, the communities we uphold, can’t be seen sporting these blank and boring license plates. 

There are an astonishing number of license plate options available at the Colorado DMV that all support various causes. They utilize unique colors, designs, and simple wording to help promote awareness, yet their newest iteration is simply solid-colored aluminum which offers no information about what the plates are funding. While these plates may be clean, they pale in comparison to the rest of Colorado’s license plate catalog, and thus, Colorado’s identity has been tarnished as their popularity rises. This is not to say that every license plate has to support a cause. Again, most will not spring for the specialty license plates or customization and will instead settle for what is cheapest. But the argument here is based on principle: why do these new license plates, sheathed behind the blank slate of a historic background, that coincide with the same ability other license plates have in supporting collective causes, have to be boring?

I’m firmly anti-boring license plate. I believe in the unique ability something as simple as a license plate has to convey multiple messages about the state the driver represents and even the driver themself. We have to stare at them anyway, so some creative agency should be seen. 

Everyone has their own right to choose what they want attached to the front and back end of their car. Everyone can choose to represent their own causes in a variety of ways and there are definitely better ways to spread awareness for the associations, organizations, and groups often showcased on our license plates. But the blacked out plates and their blue, green and red cohorts seem to be mitigating the meager ability a license plate has to encourage awareness to various causes and groups. 

All of this makes me wonder whether or not license plates have any real effect on change at all, and perhaps signifying change is best utilized in a way that doesn’t involve the Colorado DMV. Truthfully, license plates are nothing more than romanticized aluminum, cared about for all the wrong reasons. And the more I consider this losing effort to combat the new license plates, the more I begin to look at license plates in their entirety and wonder whether or not this epidemic of boring plates falls back to whoever is behind the wheel and their lack of appreciation for the obscure and interesting license plates. 

Maybe, the license plate simply identifies the kind of car being driven.

Or, someone’s career.

Their side gig.

Their friend group. 

Whose parent they are. 

That nickname they just can’t seem to get rid of.

But sometimes, it’s a way to show everyone that you’re better than them.

Still, some people don’t care to understand.

Those with the newly-designed license plates treat themselves like royalty.

They believe the new is better than the old. 

And this can make you angry. 

You want to lash out. 

Tell your friends all the trouble with something as simple as license plates.

But when most don’t understand the dilemma, you cry out in search of an answer.

Some will try to make a change. 

While others will laugh instead, because they know this is just the way things are.

Eventually, you start to care less.

And you start to question your own truth. 

You realize most people don’t care about what’s happening to license plates across the country.

You start to believe that you’ve been looking at everything the wrong way.

Eventually, you realize that every issue can’t be solved now, or even in your lifetime.

And a license plate isn’t going to make any difference at all, for any sort of cause.

Really, all you can do is try your best, and enjoy what you have.

As we continue to blindly follow along with the trends of these historically-fueled and uninteresting license plates, drivers must take a long look at the plate they select and think twice about exactly how they want to support the various causes and communities in need. There are plenty of ways to donate that don’t grant you the honor of owning a set of license plates that resemble the inverse of creativity and state representation.

Bring back the license plate designs that everyone loves. Conjoin them with funding for causes that Coloradoans can choose to support. Maybe steer some of the customization money away from the DMV and towards more important matters. Do not neglect the CDFC, but outfit the new designs with the ability to spread awareness for what the proceeds go towards. 

Do not join the dark side. Stay in the world where license plates are unique, where they embody some form of creativity, where they are something worth pointing out to whoever is stuck in the car with you. Colorado is more than just the word printed against a solid black background. We’re better than that. We’re clearly not as cool as Alaska, but we’re kind of cool and we care about others as long as it gets us a cool-looking license plate.

World License Plates

The Colorado Disability Funding Committee provides grants for disability application assistance and innovative programs that increase the quality of life and independence of Coloradans with disabilities. More information can be found here.

The complete catalog of license plates can be found here.

For those who are really, really big fans of license plates, the entire U.S. catalog can be found here.

Shoutout to Andrew, Caroline, Chris, Tyler, and the License Plate Reddit Community for the help capturing some of Colorado’s most unique license plates.

 And for anyone wondering, yes, it’s legal to post someone’s license plate online. 

So suck on that!




Colorado Department of Revenue & Division of Motor Vehicles

Colorado Disability Funding Committee 


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