From Canyon To Cove: A whale of a tale

July 21, 2011|By Cindy Frazier
  • The old whale license plate, a popular image painted by the Laguna Beach muralist known a Wyland. His 2008 request for 20% of the states profits from the plates was rebuffed.
The old whale license plate, a popular image painted by… (California Coastal…)

After nearly 20 years on California license plates, Wyland's humpback "whale tail" has been replaced by a new design as of July 1, three years after Wyland and the California Coastal Commission had a public falling out over the agency's license plate program.

The special plate, which costs $50 more than regular license plates, plus an extra annual fee to the DMV, has reportedly raised more than $40 million for conservation and environmental programs in the state — outselling all other specialty license plates, according to commission officials.

Wyland, the internationally known marine life artist who started out at the Sawdust Art Festival and still has a studio here in Laguna Beach, donated the design to the agency in 1996 but became disenchanted when the commission refused to share any of the proceeds with his Wyland Foundation. (Actually, the foundation did get a donation of $20,000 in 2005; that's not chump change, but to Wyland it was a paltry offering.)


The "whale tail" began to unravel in June 2008, when Wyland gathered the press together in his South Coast Highway studio. He accused the commission of "bullying" him and demanded 20% of the plate's proceeds be donated to his charity arm.

Through his attorney, Wyland issued a 30-day notice demanding the commission cease and desist using the image unless they came to an agreement over sharing the profits.

A miffed Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said at the time that the whale tail image was being used under the rubric of an "oral agreement," and that no formal licensing or any word on paper had been set down giving the state the right to use the design. That's pretty slack for a state agency.

Douglas also acknowledged that the agency had rejected many requests for funding from the Wyland Foundation, explaining that he considered such requests to be a conflict of interest for the artist, who, after all, had his design — and signature — plastered on vehicles all over the state, as per the oral agreement.

"The Wyland Foundation is indistinguishable from Wyland himself," Douglas told me.

Remember, this was 2008, and business-savvy Wyland no doubt could see that the art business in general was going south with the sinking economy; he has since closed two of his three galleries in Laguna Beach. Even Wyland, who spends most of his time in Hawaii and owns a nice beachfront lot in Laguna, was starting to feel the pinch.

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