The fight to save a license plate that says "FART"
A woman in Asheville requested new custom tags for her truck, but the state says it made a mistake and wants them back. Now, what started as a joke has turned, maybe, into a real organization.
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Last October, Karly Sindy was renewing her truck’s registration and came across something that caught her eye on the state DMV website: A specialized “Friends of the Smokies” license plate. She clicked on it because she loved the picture of the bear, but also discovered that she could customize it with any four letters of her choosing. So, just for fun, Karly typed in a few funny words. “I tried FART,” Karly said, “and it turned green.”
Her husband was sitting across from her in the office they share in their home in Asheville.
“‘FART’ is available,” she told him.
“No way,” he said.
They placed their order and got an email back, saying that her plate’s phrase was under review. Oh well, she thought.
Three weeks later, a package arrived from the DMV. “I knew exactly what it was,” Karly says. “I lost my mind.”
Karly immediately went outside and put the plate on her 2017 Toyota Tacoma. Then she kept this wondrous surprise mostly to herself, or, at least as much as you can when you’re driving a truck around Asheville with a “FART” license plate on it. Karly’s a molecular biologist-turned-software developer with a dog and a 7-year-old daughter. At first, her little girl was confused, and wondered why her mom didn’t get a “LUNA” license plate instead. But then, as she saw the reaction the plate got, she understood. People took pictures. They started conversations. “It brought me joy,” Karly says. “It’s the best truck to drop a 7-year-old off at school in.”
But Karly didn’t do the thing that I, and maybe you, would do. She didn’t brag about it. “My Twitter has been very professional,” she says. At first, she never posted anything about it there, or on Instagram, where she has “like, 10 followers.” (Actually, 78). She’s always been a “lurker” on Reddit.
So, basically, a Toyota Tacoma with a FART license plate was on the roads for, like, three months, and most of us never heard about it. “We call it a ‘taco,’” Karly said, short for Tacoma. “It’s the Taco FART truck.”
Then, for the plate, things went from silent to deadly.
On Thursday morning, Karly got a letter from the state. Someone had complained about the FART, and Karly had 30 days to respond, or she’d have to give it back.
Karly helped me piece together a rough timeline of what happened over the next 9 1/2 hours:
Thursday, 8 a.m. - Karly reads the letter. She’s dejected, as you might imagine, but then notices one line in particular that turns her mood around: “Please send a written statement explaining what this personalized plate represents or means to you.”
8:44 a.m. - Karly quickly writes a post on the r/Asheville subreddit, asking for help. “A lot of times I’ll overthink my writing,” she says. “But I just got this out.”
9:07 a.m. - A redditor named VRpetparent replies with an idea: Why not create an organization that aligns with the license plate? The suggestion: Friends of Asheville Recreational Trails. Another user, ilikemrrogers, suggests that she create a website.
9:33 a.m. - Karly registers friendsofashevillerecreationaltrails.com, then starts to build it out. By then, the comments on her Reddit post are starting to coalesce around three topics:
People who are mad at whoever reported FART to the DMV.
People offering legal advice (mostly amateur) to Karly to help her prepare her appeal.
People who say they legitimately want to join Karly’s new club.
As Karly furiously teaches herself Wordpress, she starts to get an idea: What if this club actually met? Like today?
12:15 p.m. - Karly tweets about it.
Karly and her husband are hikers, and they’d been out to Richmond Hill Park in Asheville a few times. It seemed like a great place to meet up. So a few minutes before 5:30, they pulled the Taco FART Truck into the parking lot and waited. At first, they thought: oh God, no one’s coming. Then, they saw a car pulling up with a license plate that read “HOOT” (“I thought it said POOT at first,” Karly says). A man got out wearing a t-shirt that read “Asheville Sinkhole Society.” Karly read the first letters of each word. It was an omen.
In total, 15 people came out for the first meeting of an organization that had just been created that morning to save a license plate that said FART. They brought signs and kids. A former ranger showed up. Two members of the Friends of the Smokies arrived and handed out stickers of a the plate. Everybody chatted for a bit, got to know each other, and took a picture.
The small in-person gathering led to more comments online, and more momentum. People took pictures in front of the FART license plate at Chimney Rock. Someone sent Karly the Ben Franklin essay “Fart Proudly.” A few locals made logos for the group without being asked.
Per Google, “Ventum Ab Culus In Caelo” translates to “the wind from the asshole in the sky.”
Soon after the meetup, a reporter working for the Raleigh News & Observer wrote a story and contacted the DMV, which said that FART had long been on its list of banned words, and that Karly’s plate would be recalled. Axios Charlotte recently did a story which included a fairly complete list of rejected plates, and a scan of that list shows that FART is clearly on it, along with several variations including FART and FARTACUS. However, officially, Karly’s plate is listed as FARTSM, since it includes an S and M on the far right to signify that it’s a Friends of the Smokies plate. Karly has a hunch that’s the reason why her plate got through.
Still, the state is trying to make it sound like this is an open-and-shut case. On Saturday night, the official NCDOT Twitter account sent out a link to the story, saying “We know… it stinks.” Nearly everyone replying didn’t agree with the decision, including a powerful conservative state senator who tried to use it, strangely, to fight a battle in the culture war. I asked him for comment via Twitter:
Karly herself says she hasn’t personally received any word from the DMV other than the original letter. Still working on a response which she hopes to have out later this week. She’s also, strangely, planning another meeting of the Friends of Asheville Recreational Trails. She’s trying to print stickers and t-shirts and car magnets that look like her tags “so everybody in Asheville can have a FART plate,” she says, slyly. “One person complained, and now it’s everywhere.” Everything, she says, would be donation-based, and not for profit. “I’m not a marketing person,” she says. “It gave me anxiety [at first]. But it’s been easy and positive. Now, even if I do lose it, I’ll still smile about it. It took a downer and turned it into something joyful and fun.”
All of this means what started as a joke may not turn out to be a joke after all. “I didn’t go into it trying to get FART on my license plate,” Karly says. “It happened organically.”
(Big ups to Rabbit Hole reader @ajarrell82 on Twitter, who first tipped me off to this story)
UPDATE (3/4/22): Jimmy Kimmel is on team FART: