One night in May 2008, police said, they spotted Ian Debeer spraying his indelible moniker, “HERT,” on a bridge support in Etna.
His arrest prompted Pittsburgh detectives to search his Mount Washington home where, they said, they found 500 cans of costly, high-end spray-paint, 300 photographs of graffiti, and videos of Mr. Debeer leaving his mark.
Despite the raid, police said, Mr. Debeer continued tagging while detectives built their case against him, until his arrest yesterday on four felony and 69 misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief for graffiti that, police said, caused $212,100 in damage to city and private property.
Officers arrested Mr. Debeer, 21, after a morning court appearance for his arrest last year in Etna.
“He thought we forgot all about him,” said Detective Daniel Sullivan, who filed a 33-page criminal complaint against Mr. Debeer that lists 100 locations where “HERT” had been sprayed.
Police said his spree of painting colorful, bubbly “graffiti murals” started in April 2007 and offers glimpses into a lively underworld of graffiti vandalism that has made Pittsburgh what one detective called “the heart of graffiti nation.”
Mr. Debeer was so prolific that the Graffiti Task Force named him No. 2 on its list of “10 Most Wanted Graffiti Vandals.” No. 1 was Daniel Montano, a Highland Park graffitist who was sentenced last year to 21/2 to 5 years in state prison after pleading guilty to 79 counts of criminal vandalism.
Mr. Montano and Mr. Debeer belonged to “Not Strictly Freights,” a prominent “graffiti crew,” Detective Sullivan said. Police also found a letter from the convicted graffitist in Mr. Debeer’s house, the complaint says.
Mr. Debeer split his time between Mount Washington and his birthplace of Buffalo, N.Y., where, Detective Sullivan said, he told police in 2004 that he was responsible for “HERT” graffiti.
“That’s my tag,” Mr. Debeer told a Buffalo police officer, according to the complaint. “The name I picked.”
Mr. Debeer’s murals also occasionally bore the letters “BF,” for Buffalo’s Finest, the complaint says.
Police aren’t sure what he does for a living or how he was able to afford the $3,000 worth of spray paint they discovered in June 2008 in his house, where he also kept detailed records of his graffiti activity in sketchbooks and computer files, they said.
Police also found hundreds of photos of graffiti, 165 of which they matched to locations Downtown, in the Strip District, the North Side, the South Side, the West End, Bloomfield, Friendship, East Liberty, Uptown and Oakland. Task force detectives spent months canvassing neighborhoods to match the photos to their locations.
The complaint says Mr. Debeer caused $65,800 in damage to city property; $18,900 in damage to railroad property; and $127,400 in damage to private property.
His arrest underscores a police push to eradicate graffiti in a city where there are at least 25 graffiti crews and 650 individual vandals, Detective Sullivan said. But it might not have the desired effect.
“The graffiti community believes now that the city of Pittsburgh is cracking down on graffiti and even more of them are coming to the city,” he said. “They get street credibility.”