Whale Tail License Plate (Photo: California Coastal Commission)

A donation of art turned into a court case, a police force up in arms and millions of dollars at stake. Clearly we are talking about nothing else but California’s famous “whale tail” license plate. How could these seemingly random things come together to create such turmoil? Blame the famous fluke‘s success!

Reading more like a soap opera (well, what is left of soap operas) than actual reality, the California Coastal Commission found out what happens when you are a little too successful: Everyone wants to get a piece of you. The original whale tail license plate was created by the artist Wyland and it was a hit with 187,000 of them having been sold. Those sales  have generated $60 million that has been used for a variety of environmental programs. In 2008 the artist Wyland decided that there should be one more beneficiary of the whale’s largess, the Wyland Foundation and a battled ensued.

Original Wyland designed plate (Photo: California Coastal Commission)

Piling on to the situation, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) began complaining about all of these newfangled license plates with graphics that stretch across the whole plate.  The license plates were too hard to read, the CHP claimed. To get the full effect, you should really think of this complaint being made by Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets. The CHP prevailed and newly issued specialty plates can only have a small block on the left-hand side of the plate.

In order to fix the situation without forking over a large some of money or changing the overall desirability of the plate, the Commission settled on two artists to fashion a new plate, Bill Atkins who is a graphic artist and Elizabeth Robinette Tyndall who is a landscape painter. The Commission was also able to get the new plate categorized as a “revamp” and therefore able to fill the entire license plate.

The new plate features the tail of a humpback whale, instead of the anonymous tail of the first plate. A Wyland Foundation representative told the San Francisco Chronicle that the new design is “A Poor imitation of a Wyland artwork” and stated that the artist’s demands for a percentage were perfectly reasonable. In the end, however, the representative simply said that the Foundation wishes to “Move forward.” California drivers can move forward and save $25 in the process, for a limited time the plate’s initial fee is being reduced from $50 to $25. The plate will set you back $40 annually when it comes time to renew.