Michael Kalish's License Plate Art

Michael Kalish's unconventional artwork gives new meaning to the phrase "artistic license." His latest piece is a portrait of rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly. Like all of Kalish's works, the Holly portrait is made entirely of license plates.

Kalish, 34, spent a decade as a struggling artist, but now his work sells for big bucks — from $5,000 to as much as $150,000. He's now sharing space in the Artworks Gallery in Pasadena, Calif., with some of the giants in the world of modern art.

Kalish says his love of license plates stems from the rich history they bring with them. He told CBS News' Serena Altschul that there are "so many levels, like peeling an onion," to them.

"It's so Americana. It's so iconic. It's the thumbprint of the automobile. Every one is individual, and they're so unique," he said.


Photos: License Plate Art
Like many American kids, Kalish, who now lives in California, played license plate games on family road trips. Later he felt a mysterious attraction to license plates and started collecting them.

"Then I had this studio with like thousands of license plates," he said. "And then I was just sitting there kind of looking at them trying to figure out what to do."

Kalish ended up turning his plates into iconic American images. But that's just the beginning of what he thinks makes his art unique.

"It's such a great dimension to a piece of art that there are 50, 100 — you know — 200 stories within a piece of art from people from all over the country, all over the world, where they've been," he said. "Whose car was that on? And what's the story behind that? And then each piece tells a different story."

Kalish's own story is a rich one with many layers. First of all, he's color-blind — he says he can't tell light blue from dark blue. He grew up in Atlanta with two passions: art and baseball. He was such a good baseball player that had a rare and coveted brush with athletic stardom.

"I had a couple of scouts who came to my games," he said. "I had a couple of private tryouts with a couple of big teams, the Braves and the Yankees."

As his prospective athletic career intensified, Kalish continued to create art on the sly, sometimes coming late to his games or to practices because he was in the middle of a nude figure drawing class.

"They didn't know where I was until a few of 'em discovered where I was," he said. "So I'm in the Deep South playing baseball and taking these figure-drawing classes."

A serious back injury ended any hope of a baseball career, so Kalish took a formula his dad had preached about baseball and applied it to his art.

"It's passion about something," he said. "It's not clicking in and out of life. It's not waiting in line. That's my motto: Get out of line."

He certainly is not waiting in line and currently has work displayed at the Artworks Gallery, along with Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Picasso and Miro and Chagall.

"Michael is really the only coming artist that we represent," said Christopher Forney, the co-owner of the Artworks Gallery. "And while we've been asked for — every week for 10 years to do so — he's the only one we ever chose."

Kalish was chosen not just for his art, but also for his marketable personality.

"In today's age of media, it's an important element for an artist to also be a personality and in somebody who's actually portraying other personalities," Forney said. "It's interesting and important that he is."

David Goldstein, an investment adviser in Philadelphia, collects Kalish. He also likes the combination of Kalish's art and personality. Goldstein also likes that the art has doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in value.

"Michael to me is going to be ... another Warhol-type artist when it comes to investment," Goldstein said. "I still think that he's selling things inexpensively today compared to what they're going to be in 10, 20, to 30 years from now. We're just at the beginning."

Kalish is best known for his portraits of famous Americans such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen. Ringo Starr bought one of the Beatles. Disney commissioned a series on Mickey Mouse, and Kalish's portrait of Marilyn Monroe is his nod to Andy Warhol.

"She's the icon of all icons to do," he said of the 1950s sex symbol. "I don't think I can call myself a contemporary artist that may be presented in a pop fashion and not present this image."

Kalish's love of license plates has tuned into a love of metal in general. He likes to work with newly fabricated metal as well as the very old metal from the original "Hollywood" sign. He worked with a piece of metal from the original "H."

"I wanted it. I need it. I had to have it. And I knew I didn't care if it was now or a year, I was gonna do something with it," he said. "And I think I — like when I started with plates, I wanted to do something really literal, a series of Hollywood signs. Just fit. Had to be done."

If you ask Kalish what thrills him the most about his art, he says it is that he "created a medium" that he feels passionate about.

"I'm really proud of that. And I'll create the next one hopefully for me that works," Kalish said. "I created this medium that turned into a huge body of work, and landed me in six galleries around the world, which I'm so passionate about. Because it literally for me it was out of nothing."