Wayne Roberts, ‘Stay High 149’ in Graffiti Circles, Is Dead at 61

June 12, 2012
Published By    NEW YORK TIMES


Wayne Roberts was a pioneering 1970s graffiti writer known as “Stay High 149” who borrowed the haloed stick figure from the title sequence of the 1960s television series “The Saint,” put a joint in its mouth and turned it around. His “Smoker” tag, or signature, turned the heads of legions of imitators and admirers, including the anonymous teenagers who slipped into train yards at night to paint whole cars, as well as Norman Mailer, who featured him in his book “The Faith of Graffiti.”

Mr. Roberts, who disappeared from the scene for some 25 years until he was rediscovered by a new generation of fans and artists in 2000, died on Monday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. He was 61.

The cause was complications of liver disease, his sister Pauline Noble said.

“He was incredibly influential for generations,” said Eric Felisbret, founder of the graffiti archive @149st and author of “Graffiti New York.” “He set the pace for how to do an elegant tag and set yourself apart from other people. It was like corporate branding.”

Mr. Roberts was born in Emporia, Va., on Oct. 20, 1950. He never knew his father — not even his name — and moved to Harlem as a child with his mother and his younger brother, Eddie. The family moved to the Bronx in 1966.

He recounted on his Web site that by his late teens he was working as a messenger on Wall Street and smoking about an ounce of marijuana a week, earning the Stay High nickname.

In his subway travels he noticed other tags — TAKI 183, JOE 182 and PRAY — and followed suit with his own creation, according to his site. He said he could hit as many as 100 trains a day and twice that at night, when he sometimes did larger pieces.

“In 1972, Wayne was 22, and he was taking the train to deliver all over the city,” said Chris Pape, a younger graffiti writer and co-author, with Sky Farrell, of Mr. Roberts’s biography, titled “Stay High 149,” published by Gingko Press. “He rode empty trains all day with markers in his pocket, and he wrote everywhere.”

Mr. Pape said the Smoker figure was a departure from the tags of the early 1970s, which relied on simple, straight letters, often done by young teenagers who were active only briefly. Soon stylistic flourishes like arrows and loops were added, but none were as successful as the Smoker.

In 1973 New York magazine featured Stay High in an article and showed his face. He was arrested soon afterward. (The arresting officer later called him “a gentleman.”) Switching to different tags, Mr. Roberts eventually created another memorable tag: spare, kinetic letters declaring “Voice of the Ghetto.” Many other writers copied elements of his style, including the stick figure and the halo, even the name: there was Stay Cool 149 and Super High 149. In one case, another Bronx artist insisted to High Times magazine that Mr. Roberts had gotten the original tag idea from him and his cousin.

By the mid-1970s Mr. Roberts had disappeared from the scene devoting himself to his job as a messenger at the World Trade Center (where he tagged many of the staircases) and to raising his two children, Dwayne and Michelle, who survive him, along with two sisters, Ms. Noble and Karen Michelle Owens, and three brothers, Tracy, Eddie and Tyrone.

By the early ’80s, Mr. Pape said, drugs had begun to take their toll. Mr. Roberts left his World Trade Center job, and his wife, because of his drug use.

“He was a functional junkie who occasionally did time in prison for stupid things,” Mr. Pape said. “He was like that for 20 years. He didn’t want to be found.”

It was not until a chance encounter in 2000 with another early graffiti writer that he realized he had so many loyal fans. At an exhibition in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, he was mobbed by autograph seekers. At another show, he had to duck out the back door because of the crowds. Mr. Pape said Mr. Roberts cleaned himself up and began to write graffiti again. New versions of the Smoker started appearing.

When Mailer’s “Faith of Graffiti” was reissued in 2009, the cover carried a photo of a Redbird subway car rumbling along elevated tracks, with “Stay High 149” emblazoned on its side.

Yet by then, it was not uncommon to find the creator of that tag haggling with customers on the street as he sold canvases for a pittance.

“When he came back on the scene, he had no idea how important he was,” Mr. Felisbret, the graffiti archivist, said. “He could not capitalize on it because he had no business savvy. The level of his street cred could have translated into some money. Instead, he was selling canvases in the street for $25.

“I’m not saying he could have made Banksy money. He was looking for a quick buck. But at least I’m glad he knew how the culture felt about him.”

A version of this article appeared in print on June 15, 2012, on page B10 of the New York edition with the headline: Wayne Roberts, 61, Graffiti Writer of ’70s.