HUF recently caught up with NYC graffiti and hip hop legend KEO XMEN, as well as HUF ambassador REMIO, to discuss STAYHIGH 149's highly influential contribution to graffiti culture as we know it today.
Check out the conversation below.
STAYHIGH149 was one of my earliest influences as a child in NYC in the early 70's. Before I was even old enough to actively participate in this movement, I was studying and trying to decipher the names going by on the subways, buses, and ice cream trucks of the city. Many of these tags were illegible to me then, but STAYHIGH stood out: bold and recognizable, and always with the choicest placement. Even though his tag was highly stylized, the message was clearly communicated and easily read. "VOICE OF THE GHETTO!" with a star at either end and quotation marks, usually rendered with a "UNI-WIDE" poster marker on the advertising panel on the interior of the MTA's rolling fleet. "STAYHIGH 149" with an arrow off the S, a smoking joint crossing the H, and most famously, his iconic haloed stick figure.
Though STAYHIGH vanished from the scene in the mid-seventies, his tags lived on. Even when faded, younger writers wouldn't dare go over one of his panels. His style lived on as well, each new generation adopting some version of the blueprint STAYHIGH had left us. One of the first of the original generation of subway Kings that I met, LSD Om, told me that he got his S from STAYHIGH and his D from DeadLeg167 (STAYHIGH’s writing partner). STAYHIGH's style was so influential that by the time I was getting into the swing of things (1979) nearly every writer in New York had incorporated some of his iconography into their own signatures; the Arrow, the Halo, the Stars, the Quotation Marks. These were the tools we had available to us to adorn our names and identify ourselves as real New York-style writers.
And what about the stick figure character? SO many writers copied this and developed their own variations, myself included. The innovations that STAYHIGH 149 had developed became the visual language of our culture. His legend grew so much during his absence that at one point an impostor actually appeared claiming to be the great STAYHIGH 149, fooling more than a few people.
When the actual Wayne "STAYHIGH 149" Roberts finally did reappear at a gallery show in 2000, he seemed too humble, almost unaware of the impact he had, and entirely overwhelmed by the crowd of admirers begging for his signature. He was much smaller than I imagined him—I guess our childhood heroes always take on Paul Bunyan proportions in our minds; I was expecting Ron O'Neal or Richard Roundtree. I got to know Wayne, and came to see that he was really down to earth, cool as hell. Despite many years of hard times, incarceration, and financial struggle, he was genuinely happy and grateful. Unlike many "Graffiti Legends" who hadn't done half of what STAYHIGH had, he never came off as arrogant or egotistical. I never heard him boast of his exploits, or try to downplay another writer’s achievements... very rare in this ego-driven, competitive culture.
Wayne made an amazing comeback, bombing the city with Stick Figures, showing these young boys how it's done. He also made a pretty decent living just off selling his art hand-to-hand without gallery representation, managers, or agents—no small feat, trust me. Once, in conversation, I made the mistake of calling his Stick Figure character a "Saint" (The Saint was a popular literary and television character of the 1960's, who used a similar haloed figure as his calling card), and Wayne patiently corrected me, saying that his character was "The Smoker," not "The Saint." "See,” he said, “the Saint faces right, mine always faces left, and mine has a smoking joint." I couldn't argue with that, he would have won a copyright infringement suit in any court of law. I just wonder how many of the hundreds of kids who bit that stick figure after Wayne took the time to develop their own trademark characteristics.
I would see Wayne damn near everyday, running around Manhattan, hustling his canvases, selling his art. He always took time to build with me in his understated way. I miss him greatly and hope he is resting in peace... But I also know that, as long as some kid somewhere is picking up a marker to try his hand at this graffiti writing game, STAYHIGH 149 lives on.
- KEO XMEN
Being able to wear an emblem like STAYHIGH on my back... STAYHIGH represents the essence of the era of graffiti that is most influential to me, that's an honor.