CHICAGO—The winning submission in a design contest honoring Chicago’s first responders has been disqualified because some say it contains gang signs. Authorities rejected the artwork when experts concluded that the symbols it portrays are too close to those used by a violent Chicago street gang.
More than 18,000 people voted on the image that would decorate Chicago’s 2012–2013 vehicle stickers. Schools from across the city participated in the contest, and the winning design, drawn by special-needs high school freshman Herbie Pulgar, was selected from among 10 finalists. Officials announced Pulgar’s win last week at an awards ceremony.
At first glance, the artwork seems to portray civic pride—a heart embraces the city’s flag and skyline, as the helping hands of “Chicago’s Heroes” reach skyward. However, posts on two police blogs indicate that the 14-year-old artist was actually paying homage to the notorious Maniac Latin Disciples (MLD).
“Looks like little MLD Herbert pulled a fast one on the City of Chicago,” wrote one blogger. “He made a Maniac Latin Disciple Chicago city sticker.”
The design shows hands reaching for the symbols of firefighters, police, and paramedics, but experts say the gestures resemble the pitchfork sign used by the MLD. Local news coverage featured side-by-side comparisons of Pulgar’s artwork next to a police photo of the actual gang-related hand sign.
While it’s not clear that Pulgar had intended to portray gang symbols, authorities said the images were “too close to be a coincidence.”
“If you first look at the hands, the way the fingers are configured is not dissimilar to a gang sign for a particular gang,” said president of the Crime Commission and former police superintendent Jodi Weiss in a press conference.
Bloggers pointed to personal photos on Pulgar’s Facebook page and to the heart motif in his design as further evidence of his alleged fluency in street gang symbolism. Experts note that the heart is also the main symbol for the MLD.
Pulgar’s mother, Jessica Loor, denied that her son’s design had anything to do with gang activity and told reporters that she had suggested the heart idea to express love for city heroes. Similarly, Pulgar’s art teacher said that she had supplied him with the image on which he based his hand drawings.
“I feel there [are] a lot of haters,” Loor said, holding back tears, in a classroom press conference at Pulgar’s school. “They can make anything out of anything.”
According to City Clerk Susana Mendoza, the ordeal has been heartbreaking, but even if Pulgar didn’t intend to portray gang symbols, the perception that he did so has become too prevalent, and his winning image has become too controversial.
“My administration must have a zero-tolerance policy for any city sticker artwork that could even remotely be misinterpreted to be gang related,” Mendoza said in a statement. “While every artist has a back story and artwork is often controversial, the artwork on our city vehicle stickers should not be. I cannot ask Chicagoans to put a sticker on their car that experts believe may be misconstrued as containing gang symbols.”
After consulting with gang experts, Mendoza decided to replace the controversial design with the runner-up option, an artwork that had previously lost to Pulgar’s by about 200 votes.
To quell any further controversy, Mendoza had the second-place design analyzed by gang experts. They determined that nothing in the artwork—which depicts a police officer, a firefighter, and a paramedic flying over Chicago in service-specific superhero outfits—could be misinterpreted as gang-related.