Graffiti artist plasters San Francisco

September 17, 2006|By New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the most wanted men in San Francisco - if he is a man - has no known name, no known mug shot and one very efficient sticker machine.

For several months, the police say, someone has been plastering the city's walls, public phones and newspaper boxes with postcard-size stickers reading "BNE" in big black letters. Sometimes the stickers also have Japanese script that translates to "visit" or "come to."

All of which makes for an amusing curiosity for pedestrians, but it has left city officials quite unhappy.

In mid-July, Mayor Gavin Newsom offered a $2,500 reward for the capture of "BNE," calling the stickers "large, unsightly, confusing and utterly inappropriate." It is the first time the city has offered a cash reward in a graffiti case, a move that Newsom said was necessary to stop the "repetitive malicious mischief."

The city attorney, Dennis J. Herrera, said San Francisco was suffering from a "growing epidemic of graffiti-tagging" and other vandalism that dirties city streets.

"The fact of the matter is that it exacts a toll from neighborhoods in a variety of ways," Herrera said. "It's not just in monetary values, for cleanup, but it also degrades the quality of life for people that live there."

Just days after Newsom established the reward, Herrera announced a $20,000 civil judgment against Carlos Romero, 20, who had been "tagging" with abandon in the western part of the city using a variety of aliases, including "Lafer," "Coma," "Queso" and "Cream."

As part of the judgment, Romero was ordered to stay away from spray paint and indelible markers. He was put under a curfew of 11 p.m. and instructed to record a public-service announcement for radio.

"This is a message that if you're going out to tag, if we catch you, there's going to be a stiff price to pay," Herrera said.

But while Romero prepares to head to the studio, "BNE" remains at large, a fact that no doubt wears on Officer Christopher Putz, who oversees the San Francisco Police Department's two-person graffiti-abatement unit.

Putz, who has been on the graffiti beat since 2001, takes his work seriously; he will not allow his photograph to be taken, and he gives his age merely as "in my 30s," for fear of tipping his hand. "It's a chess game," he said.

Putz says San Francisco has always had a place in the graffiti underworld, in part because landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge tempt graffiti glory-seekers. "Who wants to tag some Podunk town no one has ever heard of?" he asked.

Experts say the city's enforcement efforts and economic success have dimmed graffiti's appeal in recent years.

"In the mid-1990s, San Francisco was one of the best cities in the world," said Shepard Fairey, who became known in the 1990s for his "Obey, Giant" stickers, which depicted the face of the wrestler Andre the Giant. "They weren't cleaning things very quickly, so things would stay up a long time. A lot of writers from New York and L.A. were doing things there. But then the dot-com thing came, and the rich people came, and it got really clean."

But BNE and the reward have drawn attention back to San Francisco, said Hugo Martinez, an art dealer in New York who represents a stable of veteran and up-and-coming graffiti practitioners.

"Whenever the mayor starts to get involved in a swingfest, the masses are going to come out," Martinez said. "And he couldn't do anything better for the graffiti-writer's career than to do this."

Putz will not say whether he knows who BNE is or what the initials stand for, but the mystery is a source of avid speculation on the Internet, where some have speculated that it means "Be Nowhere Else," "Breaking `N' Entering" or even "Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement."

One blogger said "BNE" was the code for the airport in Brisbane, Australia, and posited that the stickers, along with the Japanese script, were a campaign announcing flights from there to Japan.

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