BRUNSWICK, Maine — If you have a vanity license plate in Maine, it’s likely Holly Sherburne has spotted it.
Some of Sherburne’s favorites include a convertible — “TOPLE55” — and a Chrysler PT Cruiser with the somewhat threatening non sequitur “GANGSTA.” The kindly grandfather who drove that car emailed Sherburne to tell her what the moniker meant.
“He said his grandkids told him the car looked like a ‘Gangsta’ car,” said Sherburne, whose book about Maine’s vanity plate culture, “ The Maine Plate: Maine Vanity License Plates and Their Meanings,” was published in 2010. She followed it up late last year with “The Maine License Plate Game & Puzzle Book.”
Vanity plates are a big business in Maine. The state earned nearly $3 million in 2013 from vanity plates, which cost $25 more than a standard plate. More than one in every 10 plates in the state broadcasts a personal message, according to the secretary of state’s office.
The secretary of state’s office is in charge of monitoring the messages on Maine vanity plates, a complicated task that requires the agency to maintain strong standards and a up-to-date knowledge of popular culture and slang.
There are more than 6,400 phrases that are banned from Maine vanity license plates. The secretary of state’s office, which oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, calls it the “Bleep List.”
“We do get some interesting words on license plate [requests],” said spokeswoman Raphaelle Silver.
The list of banned plates, compiled from previous requests and lists from other states, consists largely of ethnic slurs and creative takes on obscene terms. Others — “STALKR” or “HATERS” — have been deemed just generally offensive.
According to state statute, the secretary of state may refuse to issue or may recall any vanity plate containing “obscene, contemptuous, profane or prejudicial” language or license tag lines that promote abusive or illegal activity.
“Basically, when someone requests a vanity plate, if it’s a highly offensive word, it’ll get flagged in our system and rejected,” Silver said. “And if we do get calls complaining about a vanity plate being offensive, the secretary of state can review and recall that plate if he deems it offensive.”
The department does not track rejected plates, according to Silver, who said most denials come because of duplication, not language.
But Mainers come up with plenty of creative acceptable plates — including “WIKD GD,” “GETERDN” and “OH AYUH,” as well as all sorts of variations on beloved New England sports teams — which has sparked Sherburne’s interest in vanity plates, culminating in the books and her social media site, The Maine Plate. (Sherburne’s day job is director of social media at Bowdoin College.)
A study by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, “LCNS2ROM — LICENSE TO ROAM,” deemed Maine sixth among states in the percentage of its plates that show driver-chosen messages. Virginia had the greatest per capita, at more than 16 percent.
Sherburne said she was surprised to discover that Maine didn’t rank higher on that list, given the number of personalized plates she has seen. She said she’s not sure what prompts so many Mainers to use their license plates to make a statement.
“Maybe it’s because Mainers are so independent, and they like to express themselves,” she said.
Despite the state’s vigilance in monitoring plates, Sherburne has seen some that raise her eyebrows for appropriateness.
“There’s also a plate in Rockland, a great, big old car, with the license plate KICKA55,” she said. “I was surprised that one got through.”