getting around

Unbending License Plates With Gersh Kuntzman

Photo: Clio Chang

Gersh Kuntzman announced his retirement from criminal mischief early this year, planning to get out before he got arrested or beat down. But sometimes, when he spots an illegally obscured license plate, a strategically placed piece of tape, or a bent plate that can confuse the city’s speed cameras, the Streetsblog editor just can’t help himself. And with congestion pricing starting next year, it’s estimated that without more enforcement, at least one in five drivers could obscure their plates to evade the toll. Kuntzman is here to kindly fix their plates for them.

His “favorite haunts” are usually by police stations, courts, or firehouses; unsurprisingly, the city’s worst offenders are often its officials. Kuntzman was inspired by Adam White, a Brooklyn attorney who was charged with “criminal mischief” for removing a piece of plastic that obscured a driver’s license plate. Kuntzman began posting his own criminal-mischief videos where he finds drivers parked on the street with obscured license plates. He then un-defaces them — often by coloring scraped-off numbers back in with a blue paint pen — soundtracked by a jingle he wrote using GarageBand. The videos reveal a civic depravity cut with pure ingenuity: Drivers chip away at the paint, put on reflective tape, bend the plates, use temporary tags, and add retractable covers. (For a long time, Kuntzman’s white whale was Leaf Man, the now-reformed owner of a red pickup truck whom he caught multiple times stuffing leaves into his plate’s frame.)

Kuntzman showed me his methods on a recent bike trip around town: A black Jeep is parked on the sidewalk on Elk Street outside of the Federal Building downtown. Kuntzman spots the obscured plate from almost an entire block away. “What I try to do is be very subtle,” Kuntzman says as he crouches down and uses a coin to remove the cover on a license plate, which gives after just a few seconds. Despite this low-profile, he’s become a minor transit celebrity. (While biking around earlier in the day, a man in business attire recognized Kuntzman and shouted, “Hey, Gersh! I love you, man.”)

Cover successfully removed, he places it on the car’s hood. “I don’t steal,” he says. We get back on our bikes. “Now,” he says, “we get the hell out of here.”

Unbending License Plates With Gersh Kuntzman