UPDATED 02/08/12 – 9:26 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — City Clerk Susana Mendoza has decided to do away with a controversial design that won the contest to be the next city vehicle sticker, amid fears it could be seen as depicting gang signs, but the 15-year-old boy who drew it insists his drawing “is clean.”
Just days before the City of Chicago was planning to print 1.2 million newly-designed city stickers, allegations had surfaced that the picture on the stickers actually pays respect to a street gang.
The winning design, drawn by Lawrence Hall Youth Services alternative high school student Herbert Pulgar, features an image of the Chicago skyline and flag inside a heart, with four hands reaching up toward symbols of Chicago police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
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The design generated controversy in recent days after a number of police blogs claimed the design displayed gang signs and other symbols of the Maniac Latin Disciples street gang.
But, as CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman reports, Pulgar vehemently denied the images on his design were in any way gang-related.
“That’s not true … not true at all. I’m trying to show love to our first responders,” Pulgar said. “This picture is clean.”
Pulgar said his inspiration to honor first responders came from an incident when he was 4 years old.
“I was burnt from my stomach all the way up to my belly button, and they saved my life,” he said.
However, as CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports, due to the controversy over the drawing, Mendoza said the city would print stickers with a design drawn by the runner up in the contest, Caitlin Henehan, a senior at Resurrection High School. Henehan’s design is titled “Chicago’s Heroes” and has an image of a Chicago police officer, firefighter and paramedic, all dressed as stylized comic book superheroes, flying in front of the Chicago skyline.
Mendoza said her office conducted an investigation and gang experts in the Police Department and at the Chicago Crime Commission said Pulgar’s design could be interpreted as displaying gang signs, whether that was his intention or not.
“I cannot ask Chicagoans to put a sticker on their car that experts believe may be misconstrued as containing gang symbols,” Mendoza said at a City Hall news conference. “Based on these conversations with gang experts and the totality of the information, I made the decision to change the 2012-2013 city vehicle sticker design and use the design of the first runner-up.”
Mendoza said, between the advice from gang experts and the effects of news coverage and social media discussion of Pulgar’s design, there’s a perception his design could promote gangs, so she has no choice but to do away with Pulgar’s design and go with Henehan’s sticker instead.
Former Police Supt. Jody Weis, now president of the Chicago Crime Commission, applauded Mendoza’s decision to do away with the controversial sticker design.
“It’s actually kind of a sad day, because you had a theme that was beautiful; recognizing first responders. And, unfortunately, we had to make another choice.”
Weis said the image of the fingers on the hands on Pulgar’s design is “not dissimilar to the gang signs for a particular gang.” He also said the heart is the main symbol of the gang.
Although Weis did not mention the gang by its name, several police blogs have said the purported gang signs are symbols of the Maniac Latin Disciples.
Weis said, even if Pulgar didn’t intend to draw anything that looked like a gang symbol, perception can sometimes trump intent.
“If you and I can perhaps interpret that as a particular hand sign to a particular gang, then that’s probably not a good thing and we don’t need to have thousands of vehicles, including police vehicles, driving around with a sticker that could be interpreted as being somewhat reflective of a particular gang,” Weis said.
Mendoza said she feels terrible for Pulgar, calling the decision heart-breaking.
“Anybody who has a heart and anyone who’s met this young man cannot be anything but completely affected by having to make this decision,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza’s decision was a bitter pill to swallow for Pulgar and his mother, Jessica Loor.
“I’m very upset. They’ve been bashing my son for the last 24 hours. He’s only fifteen years old. I’m scared for his safety now,” she said. “I’m just very disappointed on how they’ve took this and just blew it up.”
Pulgar has said the drawing was a tribute to first-responders who once saved his life.
But Jose Rodriguez – who has lost a cousin and friends to gang violence – said he knows gang signs when he sees them.
“I wouldn’t buy this sticker for anything. I wouldn’t even put it on there for free, because I lost friends to this gang,” Rodriguez said.
Placing the sticker and a gang sign side by side, he explained.
“Clearly all four hands on top are throwing out the pitchfork,” he said.
But Loor insisted, “The hands are the helping hands of Chicago and no way, form, does anything in that picture have anything to do with gang affiliation.”
At Pulgar’s school, his art teacher, Janice Gould, said he modeled the hands after a sketch she gave him.
She said the hands, and the shape of the hands, and the configuration of the hands are straight out of her manual. Indeed, the hands on the sticker appear almost identical to a hand pictured in the art book “Teaching Children How To Succeed.”
Pulgar said it was especially upsetting that police officers would say on police blogs that he was trying to promote a street gang.
“How can they say that I’m representing a gang member? How dare they say that I’m doing that if I’m really representing them? Get that through their head that I’m representing them, not no gang,” Pulgar said.
Pulgar did acknowledge that his Facebook page, which has since been made private, had pictures of him flashing gang signs, but he said that was a “stupid” mistake from his past. He admitted he’s been in trouble before, but claimed working to win the contest was his way of trying to turn his life around.
“That’s why I entered this contest, that’s why I’m doing this, to turn myself around … from that negative that I was doing, you know what I mean?” he said. “What they saw on Facebook was me doing stupid stuff as a kid. … That’s at the time when my mom told me I have to change and I have to start doing better for myself.”
Even though his drawing will no longer be the image on city vehicle stickers, Pulgar said he’s still proud he won the competition and got to meet Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“I was proud of my work and I’d never been in the mayor’s office or I never, ever met the mayor and I was proud to give my mayor my artwork,” Pulgar said.
Pulgar said he wishes Mendoza would reconsider.
“Ms. Mendoza is a nice lady, she’s a good lady, but she should be civilized. She should have been a civilized person and talked to me and my mom and we could have changed the hands … put something else on there. … Peace signs, you know, whatever,” Pulgar said.
Caitlin Henehan, the girl whose design will be used instead, said she thinks Pulgar deserved to win, but said his design was controversial.
Pulgar said he wouldn’t let the controversy stop him from trying to win the contest again next year.
“I’m still Herbert the artist to me and I’m always gonna be Herbert the artist,” Pulgar said. “Definitely, I will by trying out next year and either they like it or not. I’ll probably win, too.”
Mendoza said no stickers had been printed yet, so the change would not cost taxpayers any additional money.
Some police blogs also claimed Pulgar is a Maniac Latin Disciples gang member.
Pulgar’s mother denies it, WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports
“He never has been in a gang; I am totally against gangs,” Loor said. “It blows my mind how people can be so mean and cruel.”
Pulgar’s art teacher said she gave her student a handout to use to create the artwork and he copied images of hands that were in that manual.
“No gang signs are permitted. Period,” Janice Gould said. “I gave him the material to reference.”
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Two men at the White Palace Grill said Wednesday that the issue has been blown out of proportion.
“If you look at, like, the Blackhawks symbol, it has a pitchfork in it, and it’s just supposed to be a wrinkle in (Chief Black Hawk’s) forehead,” said Kevin McDermott of Chicago. “It probably was an unintentional drawing that people are just turning into a different thing. There’s a lot of sports symbols that you can change into gang signs.”
“It’s nothing intentional. Like he was saying, I mean, there’s multiple things in our culture now that has that symbol out there, and it’s not meaning it’s gang-affiliated, or anything like that,” added John Spencer of Chicago.
For his winning design, Pulgar received a $1,000 savings bond that will go toward his continuing education.