EDP, License Plate Artist

Mike Haugh of Bozeman, owner of Red Beard License Plate Art, poses for a photo in his shop.

A piece of paper with “Red Beard License Plate Art” is taped to a windowless metal door in the basement of a Bozeman building that could otherwise be confused for a storage closet.

Inside the office, space unused by shipping boxes is filled with rows of license plates waiting for a project or buyer.

“I swore I wasn’t going to become a license plate nerd but I did,” Mike Haugh said. His eyes disappeared into a smile that raised his narrow red beard just above his shirt’s breast pocket.

Haugh has been in the business of license plates since 2016. He buys, sells, trades and crafts.

He puzzles pieces of plates into signs that spell out a place or take the shape a buyer requests. His work sells in 40 shops in five states.

Clutter hints at his past as an antique dealer, like a stack of Butte directories dating back to 1939. The job was fun but became more competitive following shows like American Pickers.

“It became work,” he said.

After selling 100 license plates to a New York artist, Haugh figured he’d try the craft himself. He was absorbed before he knew why.

It’s a hunt. He knows which states have the history and population to find a porcelain plate from 1915 for less than $1,200. He knows Hawaii offers the best odds to get an “L” at the beginning of a plate for clients looking to spell out “Love” or a last name.

He searches plates for hidden meanings, like the one hanging over his workbench that expired in 1963 with the number 3777 — a nod to Montana’s vigilantes.

It’s a gig that gives him freedom from a boss and schedule and not much money.

“One of our favorite sayings is, ‘We know your husband can do it, but when will he?’” Haugh said.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

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