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Nevada's Curious Fascination With Personalized License Plates

If you’ve spent any time driving around Washoe County than you may have noticed lots of personalized license plates, with messages like "FAROUT" or "NSPIRE". Reno Public Radio explores these public displays of personality and the local fascination behind them. 

No one knows more about personalized license plates than Eric Hackett.

“I started photo-documenting personalized license plates in 1998.”

Hackett has photographed thousands of license plates, mostly in Nevada and California and he’s actually turned his collection into a coffee table book called How You See it. He says people will spend extra money on these plates…

“…to get their message across. More people are spending time in their cars. So you’re not really interacting with people, [but] you still want to express yourself though, and you still want to let people get to know you, it’s almost like reaching out.” 

There are more than 200 thousand of these plates registered in Nevada. That’s roughly one in every ten cars. Hackett says most of the messages he sees are positive. The most prominent theme is “Love.”

“I love shoes, or I love New York, or I love Nevada…Just anything with LOVE.”

In seven characters or less, personalized license plates often inspire, encourage and connect us, not only to the people who have them on their cars, but also to the inmates who make them at the Tag Plant in Carson City. 

These rolls of aluminum - weighing about 2000 pounds each - are the material license plates are made from. The machine featured straightens the rolls so they lay flat and are easier to stamp/cut.

Every day, inmates work to the compulsive, heart pounding sound of giant aluminum rolls being pounded into license plates.  

“We’re required to use prison labor and also to be located on the grounds of the Department of Corrections.” 

Dave Wiley manages the factory currently located at the Nevada State Prison. It's closing the end of April and production will resume in a new building at the north end of town. The location will be different, but factory life will remain the same with a team of paid inmates turning out more than 16 thousand plates a week. The process starts by downloading orders, but…

The compulsive stamping sound heard in this piece is made by this machine. Once the designs have been transferred to the aluminum rolls, they are cut into the plates you see on cars. The Las Vegas Commemorative plate seen here is the most popular specialty license plate in Nevada.

“Inmates are not allowed to have access to the outside world. Each morning we have to manually move the report through a firewall and then we bring it in to our internal plate system here.” 

Once orders are in, they’re sent to the design room where inmates use programs like Photoshop to create existing plate illustrations as well as a dozen original styles seen on the road today.

“We’ve had inmates involved, I want to say since at least 2001 and probably going back even farther than that that have helped either with the design work or tweak the process so it works for law enforcement and for the sponsoring agency. But they’re instrumental.” 

In the design room, inmates use computer programs like Photoshop to design and create plates. Here's a one honoring the Nevada State Prison, where the Tag Plant has been located since 1913.

Creating personal billboards for everyone to see is how these inmates connect with the outside world. One of these mobile messages belongs to Reno resident C.J. Walters. You might know her better as…

“Too Groovy.”

That’s T-U-G-R-U-V-Y, TUGRUVY.

Walters found inspiration for her license plate in the classic tune “The 59th Street Bridge Song” by Simon and Garfunkel.

“Slow down, you move too fast. Got to make the moment last, just, kicking down the cobble stone, looking for fun and feelin groooovyyy.”

Walters says TUGRUVY has become her mantra.

“It’s just feeling good and putting the best of yourself out there and I try to maintain a positive attitude and feel groovy.” 

She says people approach her about her license plate all the time.

“It’s like saying hi, now you know something about me. What about you?” 

That’s Eric Hackett again. You know, the license plate guru. He says they teach us the importance of being aware, paying attention and staying connected.

So the next time you’re out driving, take a moment to look around. You might see a license plate that makes you curious, or inspires you, or just makes you smile.  

Esther Ciammachilli is a former part-time broadcaster at KUNR Public Radio.
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