by Adam Harrington, CBS Chicago web producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — Going back generations, Chicago city vehicle tax stickers had colorful designs with artworks showcasing the city, and for 17 years, the city held a contest among Chicago students to create those designs.
But since 2013, the designs have featured only boldface numerals denoting the month and year of expiration.
Why did the city do away with the design contest? The city Clerk’s office has said it was connected to a change in the sticker renewal schedule that required a more prominent display of the expiration date, and had nothing to do with a controversy in 2012 that erupted around suspicion that gang signs had been drawn into the winning entry.
Still, no artwork has appeared on city stickers since that controversy rocked the local news headlines.
The contest began in 1995 under then-city Clerk James Laski. Hundreds of students would enter each year, the public would vote upon 10 finalists each December, published reports recalled. The winner received a $1,000 savings bond in addition to having his or her design appear on windshields around the city.
Over the years, the sticker designs had honored the Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ system, the green movement, dog-friendly Chicago, and Daniel Burnham. The theme for the 2012-2013 contest was “Chicago’s Heroes” – honoring police officers, firefighters, and paramedics.
In December 2011, the city announced that the winner of the contest for the 2012-2013 design was Herbert Pulgar, a 15-year-old high school freshman at the Lawrence Hall Youth Services alternative school. Pulgar drew the Chicago skyline inside a heart with hands reaching toward symbols of Chicago Police, firefighters and paramedics.
At the time, Pulgar said, “Chicago heroes need love.”
He said his inspiration to honor first responders came from an incident when he was 4.
“I was burnt from my stomach all the way up to my belly button, and they saved my life,” he said.
But in February 2012, Pulgar and his design were thrown into a controversy. An anonymous and now-defunct Chicago Police blog with a vulgar name claimed the hands seen in Pulgar’s design might have been throwing signs for the Maniac Latin Disciples street gang.
As Chicagoist recalled at the time, the police blog also looked at Pulgar’s Facebook page and posted photos they said showed him throwing gang signs, as well as smoking blunts and wearing a red bandana around his neck that is associated with the gang.
Speaking to CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman in February 2012, 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.”
But former Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis, who was then president of the Chicago Crime Commission, said the fact was that 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.
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.
In his “Perspective” on Feb. 9, 2012, CBS 2’s Walter Jacobson defended Pulgar. He said the police blog – which had a name that began with “Detective Shaved” – and not Pulgar, was the guilty party.
“Other posts on the blog? ‘Can Chicago ever get a police superintendent that doesn’t kiss the BLEEP of inner-city blacks?’ A cartoon of nuns at a bar? A trashy at times and vulgar blog, beneath the dignity of Chicago police,” Jacobson said. “The vehicle sticker on the blog was sticker shock, so it had to go. But don’t blame and shame that boy. Blame and shame the blog.”
But as CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reported at the time, due to the controversy over the drawing, then-City Clerk Susana Mendoza said the design would be scrapped.
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 in February 2012. “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 she felt terrible for Pulgar, calling the decision heartbreaking.
“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 also 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 15 years old. I’m scared for his safety now,” Loor told CBS 2 in February 2012. “I’m just very disappointed on how they’ve took this and just blew it up.”
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.”
But Jose Rodriguez – who has lost a cousin and friends to gang violence – said he knew gang signs when he saw them. He told CBS 2 that all four hands on the design were, in fact, throwing a pitchfork symbolizing the gang.
“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 at the time.
Speaking to CBS 2 at the time, Pulgar did acknowledge that his Facebook page had pictures of him flashing gang signs, but he said that was a “stupid” mistake from his past. He admitted he had 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.”
Mendoza announced at the time that the city would instead print stickers with a design drawn by the runner up in the contest, Caitlin Henehan, a senior at Resurrection High School.
Henehan’s design was titled “Chicago’s Heroes” and had an image of a Chicago Police officer, firefighter and paramedic, all dressed as stylized comic-book superheroes as they flew in front of the Chicago skyline.
But Mendoza announced days later that Henehan had decided she did not want her design used, in the face of “unwanted media and public scrutiny and criticism of her artwork that soon followed.”
“While our daughter truly enjoyed participating in the design contest and was proud to see Chicago select her as the first runner up, what should have been a happy accomplishment in her life has now turned sour,” Henehan’s parents, Marty and Maria Henehan, said in a statement issued by Mendoza’s office on Feb. 12, 2012.
The city then opted to design the sticker in house – sticking to the “Chicago’s Heroes” theme that had been the subject of the student design contest, but not developing an artwork around it. The sticker ended up featuring the logos of the Chicago Police and Fire departments and a paramedic star of life symbol arranged in a vertical line between two blue stripes.
To date, it has been the last city sticker to feature anything at all other than numbers.
In December 2012, coinciding with the city Clerk’s office moving to sell stickers year-round instead of a window in June, the city also called off the student design contest.
In a Dec. 11, 2012 DNAinfo report, Clerk’s office spokeswoman Kristine Williams said there was limited space on the new stickers – which displayed their month and year of expiration more prominently since the expiration date was no longer June 30 for everyone.
Williams told the publication the design would be “fundamentally changed.” She told DNAinfo some schools had asked if the contest would be held again, but the schools “understood we were making significant changes to the sticker design.”
In an April 2013 Chicago Tribune article, Mendoza was quoted as saying the choice to end the sticker design contest was not connected to the controversy the year before.
Meanwhile, Pulgar went on to compete in the Congressional Art Competition after he impressed since-retired U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois). Pulgar’s artwork for the city sticker contest made its way to Washington and was hung in the U.S. Capitol, after Gutierrez selected the artwork to represent his district.
Gutierrez also brought Pulgar and his mother to Washington, D.C., and gave them a tour of the White House.
But in May 2015, Pulgar – by then 18 – made the news again for a less flattering reason. He was arrested for driving a stolen van.
Officers saw the driver of a Chevrolet Astro commit a minor traffic violation and found that it had been reported stolen. Officers tried to pull over the van, and the driver tried to flee but was arrested, police said.
Pulgar’s mother told the Chicago Tribune that her son had been a passenger in the van, and said the driver was a 13-year-old gang member. She told the paper that ever since the city sticker controversy, it had been a “downward spiral” for Pulgar.