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Artists Remember Stay High 149, Graffiti Innovator and Artist

Stay High 149 blackbook piece (Collection of Michael Alan)

Known as a pioneering figure in graffiti writing with his memorable “Smoker” tag, a haloed stick figure cartoon, taken from 1960s TV show The Saint, smoking a joint, Wayne Roberts, or Stay High 149, passed away on Monday. He was 61.

Stay High 149 leaves behind a lasting memory in both the graffiti community, as one of the original writers on the trains and arts community, as the precursor to Keith Haring and other street artists, who used images and symbols rather than the letters as their tag. In the days after his passing, artists, both in the graffiti subculture and outside, have been paying their respects via Twitter, Facebook and in countless articles.

Inspired by other early writers such as Taki 183, Stay High 149 began to write on the trains in the early 1970s and according to his own website, hit about 100 trains in a day. While Stay High 149 was known for the vast amount of tags he could write, he was first and foremost an artist, departing from the straight letter tags of that period and bringing for the first time, a more artistic flourish to his graffiti.

His close friend, Wild Style creator and decades-long graffiti partner, artist Tracy 168 spoke to me about bombing the trains with Stay High 149.  He explained:

We used to write on the train together. I’d write on the train I’d have the “Tracy” and he’d have the “Stay High.” I’d write another “Tracy” or two and he’d still be on the first “Stay High.” That’s a dangerous thing to be writing because its long. You’d be busted because you’d have to stand there a minute long.

Stay High 149 blackbook train (with Tracy 168 and Flint above) (Collection of MIchael Alan)

While most of the graffiti writers in the 1970s had their own stick figures, Stay High 149’s “The Smoker” became a recognizable symbol, though Stay High 149’s “The Smoker” would never become marketable in the art world.  With “The Smoker” ‘s funky 70’s stance, Stay High 149 captured the energy of the times through an iconic character, just as Keith Haring would become famous for a few years later with his break-dancing figures.

Stay High 149 (via 12ozprophet.com)

In addition to his own tag and “The Smoker,” Stay High 149 also wrote “Voice of the Ghetto,” a revolutionary tag where he became the true voice of the streets in desolate, decaying and bankrupt 1970s New York.

As Tracy 168 recalls:

He created his beautiful marker tag. It looks better when you have a long name. ‘Voice of the Ghetto’ was a great tag because now your speaking form the streets which I felt is what we are doing. The Voice of the people, “We the people.”

While many will try to remember Stay High 149 as merely another subway tagger, Stay High 149 was a central figure in the development of graffiti as an art form rather than names on a wall.  While Stay High 149 was not a part of the group of graffiti artists who would find success in the galleries such as Lady Pink, Crash and Daze, he also made his own canvases and works on subway maps, creating these canvases as prolifically as his tags. Even though museum collections or Jeffery Deitch don’t display his canvases, Stay High considered himself an artist.

As Tracy 168 reminisced:

He loved to draw and got a kick out it. He was a like a little boy. He’d run to me to show me something and he’d walk away like, “Boy look what I did now.” He’d say to me, “You can’t touch this, Tracy” and he’d say “Oh look at this!” He always wanted to show me his art. And it was always good.

At least he got the chance to feel what it was like to be an artist. I got his answering machine once that says “You’ve reached Stay High the artist.” He felt he was an artist and he was happy. He was finally confident enough to say he was an artist.

Not just an important figure in the graffiti scene, many fine artists also took inspiration from his artistic drive and his use of characters.

Artist Michael Alan, who used to perform and organize shows of musicians, graffiti writers, poets and other artists, would invite Stay High 149 to put up his canvases and became friends through their shared enthusiasm for art. After quitting writing for over 20 years, Stay High 149 returned to the streets and created graffiti-style canvases in the early 2000s, which was when Alan met him.

Michael Alan, "Stay High 149 RIP" (2012), ink on paper (Courtesy of Michael Alan)

Impressed by Stay High as an artist more than as a graffiti writer, Alan remembers:

By knowing Stay High or even before knowing him, I always thought of he was a true artist with this great creative energy. His characters were really readable and “The Voice of the Ghetto” would just hit you. If we had a show, he’d come with like 75 canvases in one night, like literally they’d be done and sick. I always wondered why he wasn’t in museums. I never understood why he wasn’t in the same museum as the other graffiti artists and he was hanging around me. He was a good soul and wanted to be taken seriously. I think thats what I wanted for him too to be seen as a serious artist. I feel he reflected, not only the youth and the people around him but he found a way to pull in the life we live as New Yorkers, poor people and rich people, and turn it into something positive. He’s just a legend, which would have went to his head but it didn’t. He always soldiered through the muck consistently. He was a real pleasure to work with and I can’t say that about a lot of artists I’ve worked with.

While Stay High 149’s artistic presence and personality has been lost, he will be remembered by his fellow artists, graffiti writers and hopefully soon, museum and gallery curators will wake up and recognize Stay High 149 as a significant precursor to the street art that is so widely admired in the current art world.

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