“I don’t know who first coined the term ‘highway haiku’ for vanity plates, but I think it is most appropriate. Lovers of Montauk are so clever in how they express themselves, even in such a brief way,” Mark Levy wrote in a letter to the editor of the East Hampton Star in 2016.
At the time he’d taken photos of almost 175 vanity plates relating in one way or another to Montauk and originating in about a dozen states. His letter asked readers to send him photos of license plates he had seen or heard about but not yet captured with his camera: MTK GR8, RU4REEL, and MTK MOM, for instance.
“Poetry in motion,” Stefan Lonce called them in the Montauk Sun in 2015 in another open call from Levy for pictures of Montauk plates. In actuality the “poems” range from groan-inspiring puns to plainspoken assertions to clever letter or number combinations: 02BNMTK, OMTK HWY, DE END, M TEE K.
Levy’s leads came from gas station attendants, friends, and fellow license plate admirers. If he was behind the wheel when he and his wife, Celine Keating, spotted a highway haiku that he wanted, Celine would jump out to take the photograph.
“The quest to find more is a hobby that has become a passion and obsession – maybe even an art form,” Mark wrote in his letter to the Star. “I can’t ever go to town without my pocket camera. I think that Montauk may deserve the title Vanity Plate Capital of the World.”
By the end of 2021, Mark had photographs of 315 vanity plates, and by now he has made four poster collages and a triptych combining three of the four posters. The second collage appears on the cover of On Montauk, an anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays that was co-edited by Celine. The couple, who now live in Rhode Island, were back in town last week for a reading from her new book, The Stark Beauty of Last Things, which is set in Montauk (of course).
Levy told the Sun that his own vanity plate “in Alfred Hitchcock style … is modestly hidden in all the collages.” Can you spot it?