Bringing down a ‘prolific vandal’

The spray-painted giraffes may look light-hearted, but police say the work of a “prolific graffiti vandal” across the Bay Area is anything but innocent.

San Francisco police are working to build a case against Steven Free, a 31-year-old who is accused of being the man behind “Girafa,” a tag often accompanied by a cartoon giraffe that has shown up in at least five Bay Area counties.

Free was arrested Oct. 27 on a $100,000 warrant, charging him in 10 felony cases in San Jose. The alleged damage done in those cases totals approximately $40,000.

But in San Francisco, police have had difficulty finding people willing to come forward as victims. Free has one pending felony case against him, with Caltrans officials pressing charges for graffiti on three pillars under Interstate 280.

Officer Christopher Putz of the San Francisco Police Department’s graffiti vandal unit is encouraging people to come forward. He said the owners of trucks and vans that have been vandalized often are the most irate, as the damage is difficult to repair.

Putz has had plenty of experience tracking graffiti vandals. He was front and center in an effort to catch the culprit behind “BNE,” who slapped stickers on all sorts of surfaces. Mayor Gavin Newsom even offered a $2,500 reward for the vandal’s capture.

The New York Times on Tuesday featured an interview with the supposed man behind “BNE.” He said he has never been caught, even after leaving a trail through San Francisco, Japan and New York City. Now, he has an exhibit in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

“Keep in mind those stickers that ‘BNE’ put [on] were manufactured,” Putz said. “They were made with a machine.”

In San Francisco, the man behind “Girafa” is just as likely to get his own exhibit. A group already has started collecting money to help Free with his legal fees. Roman Cesario — the art director at 1:AM, a graffiti art gallery on Sixth Street — said graffiti laws are unfair.

“To catch a felony for painting a wall, something that can be fixed, that’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “When I saw something from ‘Girafa,’ it was never somewhere offensive, like a church or someone’s house.”

 

Accusations

Police say Steven Free is one of the most prolific graffiti vandals in the Bay Area, painting ‘Girafa’ and pictures of giraffes across five counties.

-10 cases of vandalism in San Jose, resulting in approximately $40,000 in damage

-Vandalism in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco and San Mateo counties

-One case of vandalism on pillars underneath Interstate 280 in The City

Sources: San Francisco and San Jose police departments

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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