ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Chicago, city officials challenged high school students to design the city's new vehicle sticker. What they got instead is a public relations nightmare. The artwork that won was designed by a 15-year-old with special needs. But some believe the image uses symbols associated with a notorious street gang. And now, Chicago's city clerk is reversing course and choosing a different design.
NPR's David Schaper has our story.
JODY WEIS: When you first look at the design, it's a beautiful design. It's recognizing Chicago's heroes.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Former Chicago police superintendent Jody Weis is describing the artwork of 15-year-old Herbie Pulgar. He won the annual contest to design the city's stickers that are affixed to every vehicle's windshield. The drawing shows Chicago's famous skyline inside of a heart, with a backdrop of the city's blue and white flag. Extending up from the heart are four hands and above them, symbols representing police officers, firefighters and paramedics.
But look a little more closely and Chicago's former top cop sees something troubling.
WEIS: You got the hands are configured in such a way that are very similar to a particular gang's hand sign. So that's one part. If you look at it a little bit back, imagine yourself 10 feet away from this you've got a couple of hands in a position that could be viewed as horns. That's another symbol of this particular gang.
SCHAPER: The gang is the Maniac Latin Disciples. And Weis, now president of the Chicago Crime Commission, says even the large heart that is the centerpiece of artwork is a main symbol of that gang.
WEIS: When you add the heart symbol, you add the hand signs, you add the hand placements, you can see where there might be a perception that this could be in some way reflecting on a particular gang.
SCHAPER: Weis and others also point out that the teenage artist's Facebook page, which has now been taken down, had several gang-related photographs and comments.
But Herbie Pulgar, a freshman at a high school for kids with emotional and learning disabilities, insists he is not in any gang and that he did not try to sneak gang symbols into his vehicle sticker design. Here is what he tearfully told WGNTV in Chicago.
HERBIE PULGAR: Our design doesn't have nothing to do with no gangs. Nothing, it don't got nothing to do with no gangs, no violence, no nothing.
SCHAPER: But in a city where gang violence terrorizes some neighborhoods, Chicago's city clerk, Susan Mendoza, says regardless of the boy's intent, his sticker design had to go.
SUSAN MENDOZA: I can't ask any Chicagoan to put on a city sticker that is mired in controversy related to gangs. So whether that was the intent or not, it doesn't matter because the perception is out there that there could be a correlation and that is unacceptable.
SCHAPER: Mendoza says she feels horrible for scrapping Herbie Pulgar's design and is heartbroken over the controversy. But she says her office will instead print stickers with the second place design, depicting Chicago's first responders as superheroes. It received just 400 fewer votes from city residents.
The new winner will get the $1,000 savings bond the contest awards. But Mendoza says she personally will give Pulgar a $1,000 savings bond, too, so he won't lose out because of the controversy. But his family has hired to an attorney to explore possible legal action against the city, anyway.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.