It was only three years ago when Wayne Roberts, known by many as Stay High 149, passed away from a liver disease at the age of 61. While the man is no more, his heritage lives on. Despite taking a 20-year break from 1980 to 2000, his work was still regarded as some of the most influential in graffiti culture, and the same is true today, as he has been rediscovered by younger artists and fans.
Born in Emporia (Virginia) in 1950, Wayne Roberts and his family moved to Harlem seven years later. Seemingly destined to live a tumultuous life, he saw Harlem almost burn down in 1964 and Malcom X assassinated the next year. The moniker “STAYHIGH” references his pot smoking habits – an ounce a week– and was given to him in Harlem by his best friend Dave.
Inspired by TAKI183, JOE182, Superkool, Spin and Phase 2’s tags inside trains and stations, STAY HIGH 149’s style evolved quickly as he was tagging 100-300 trains a day. In 1972, he introduced the key and final element to his signature: “The Smoker’’ It was a smoking version of the stick figure from the 1960’s British television program “The Saints“. STAY HIGH 149 was the first to take a logo and adapt it into something of his own. Chris Pape, a younger graffiti writer and co-author of Wayne Roberts’s biography said the Smoker figure was a departure from the tags of the early 1970’s, which relied on straight and simple lettering. Eric Felisbret, author of Graffiti New York, states “he set the pace for how to do an elegant tag and set yourself apart from other people; it was like corporate branding“. His notorious tag had a joint in his hand and his version of the stick figure was crouching, getting ready to jump and take off.
Though he never capitalized on his street cred – he was selling canvases on the streets for 25 dollars – STAY HIGH 149 remains an icon in the writing world. It is no surprise a core graffiti convention such as Under Pressure, celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, honours STAY HIGH 149 through it’s branding, bringing back the stick figure, the arrows and loops and the marker look. In an effort to force people to remember their graffiti roots, Under Pressure worked this year’s branding around THE most influential era in writing: the 1970’s and 1980’s, paying homage to artists like Basquiat, Keith Harring and of course, STAY HIGH 149.
“Being from the ghetto, the ghetto has a voice, the voice has to be heard. You have to listen to them speak. “
- STAY HIGH 149