Cey Adams

Cey Adams
©1981 Martha Cooper

Cey Adams is a graphic designer who came up alongside art icons including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Lady Pink and Zephyr. These artists are a collective of artists that molded graffiti art and opened doors for emerging artists to create a new, powerful form of expression. Because of them, graffiti became an important element in hip-hop culture and it became a new form of art that become important to the contemporary art world.

If you’re art enthusiast, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the wealth of information available about art. Although this information is attainable, it’s not always accessible to common people. Unless you’re an art aficionado, you may not understand the jargon filled essays in Art Forum magazine, and you may not even be aware of Art books by published by Taschen or Phaidon. Cey Adams is a legend who has accepted the responsibility of sharing an important piece of history with his disciples.

“I was born during the birth of the pop era, so I don’t see much of a distinction between fine art and commercial work.”

Format: There are a lot of seasoned graffiti writers that turn down corporate offer because of the whole fear of compromising their integrity as an artist. You on the other hand started out from the grassroots of graffiti and now you are corporate.
Adams: I can understand why they think that way, but, I obviously don’t consider myself a graffiti writer. I’m way too old at this point to even think like that. In my opinion [starting as a graffiti writer] stems from being young, ‘cause obviously when you get to a certain point everything you do is for money. Especially if you’re, “doing this as a career.” To me, I don’t see anything wrong with painting a gate for a Bodega owner for a small amount of money, versus working with Nike or Adidas. That’s hopefully the progression that you wanna make.

Format: That fact that you say you’re too old, it’s such a funny coincidence…
Adams: I’m not too old, but I was 19 or 20 [when I started] and I’m 45 now. That’s a whole lifetime ago. Somebody who [says they’re] “being real,” I honestly don’t even understand that concept because writing graffiti is illegal, a mural is another thing. If you’re talking about the act of writing graffiti, I outgrew [graffiti writing] I was 19 or 20. But I’m talking about me personally, and clearly we’re not talking about tagging. Obviously the whole idea of painting is to evolve where your art is concerned.

Cey Adams

Format: Do you still paint on canvas?
Adams: I’ve been painting my whole life. When I was a kid in the 80’s I was represented alongside everybody else that I came up with. I was born during the birth of the pop era, and I don’t see much a distinction between fine art and commercial work. That is the whole thing that Andy Warhol tried to explain to people. Is that it’s art whether it’s on a coffee mug, canvass or billboard for Nike or Adidas, it’s all the same thing it’s just how you look at it.

Format: When we think of black artists on a whole, Jean Michel Basquiat is the first artist that will come to mind for a majority of us. But what about black artists’ past and present that had that same kind of effect on the art world that a lot of young people don’t know about?
Adams: Where black art is concerned, it’s difficult to go mainstream. Jean Michel in a lot of ways is no different than Tupac or Biggie in the fact that his success came after he died, which is unfortunate for him and his family. To me, his death wasn’t in vain if he is able to introduce young people to the world of art and show them that stuff that doesn’t look “traditional” can be accepted. Certainly as someone who came up with him in the ‘80’s, it’s amazing to see the iconic status that [he gained] in the last 10 or 15 years. [The prices of his work] has skyrocketed. But you know, there are a bunch of artists’ whether it be a writer like James Baldwin (a legendary black novelist), or painters like Romare Bearden, or Jacob Lawrence, a lot of artists’ have become more popular as time goes on. Even Miles Davis, he has always been famous, but his records continue to sell [tremendously] after he passed on. But, if I had to name young contemporary artists that I think are really amazing and I hope get an opportunity to have more people familiar with their work are Mike Thompson, Fahamu Pecou. [Pecou] is obviously a student of Jean Michel in the fact that he does figurative portraiture. Another artist is Kehinde Wiley. He is one of the few people that is enjoying amazing success in the last five years. It will be interesting to see the direction that his work takes on in the years to come. But all three of those artists are featured in my book. It’s one of the things that I’m very excited about and these are young painters that have dedicated themselves to the idea that they’re working the hip-hop medium.

Cey Adams

Format: Tell me about your book Definition. I’m curious because it sounds like with the book you’re not taking the conventional, graffiti writer book approach at all. It seems like it’s a very contemporary book.
Adams: It’s called Definition the Art and Design of Hip Hop. The idea is that over the last 20, 25 years, basically since the birth of hip-hop, there’s amazing talent emerging and a lot of these are people of colour. A lot of them are Asian, or middle eastern, basically, not white. There’s all these amazing talent that are coming up and nobody is really giving their work a voice. Everybody talks about graffiti and everything that happened in the ‘80’s but in my opinion that story has already been told, over and over again. Nobody is telling the story of the young kid that was inspired by Fear of a Black Planet (Public Enemy) or License to Ill (Beastie Boys) and decided that they wanted to become a graphic designer. So my concept was to try to incorporate graffiti and the evolution of graffiti and street art and show that people like Shephard Fairey or the disciples of Keith Haring, just basically to show the thread.

Format: Can you give the reader a rundown on some chapters from the book?
Adams: The book will consist of seven chapters. The first chapter is graffiti/street art/fine art. It goes from the late 70’s when we talk about the birth of tagging and we show the evolution of tagging [with pioneers like] TAKI 183 to Phase 2, and then we skim over what happened in the 80’s with Crash, Daze, (Lady) Pink, Lee and Dondi, then we fast forward to 90’s with the birth of Shephard Fairey, Dave Kinsey, David Ellis, Eric Bailey. And it’s also a great opportunity to showcase the talented women that have come along since Lady Pink. I really want to shine as much light on as many young artists’ as I can. We go from graffiti and street art to graphic design.

There’s also a chapter on advertising and hip-hop and we talk about some of the early ads, like RUN DMC’s relationship with Adidas. [We cover] Coca Cola and McDonalds.

Then there’s a chapter on fashion. The fashion chapter is a lot of fun because we trace the history of hip-hop and b-boy fashion of the early days with lines like Dapper Dan, Cross Colours, Fubu, and Karl Kani, and then we show more recent designers like Diddy with Sean John, Russell with Phat Farm and Jay-Z with Rocawear. We also talk about folks that got the opportunity to make the transition as graffiti writers to designing clothes themselves. People like Claw Money and Fafi in Paris, even myself that designed a collection with Adidas.

There’s a chapter on sneakers and customizing sneakers. Well known sneaker designers, down to people you have never heard of like Artistic Sole, who paints beautiful sneakers.

Cey Adams

Format: Now I need to talk about young kids. Is this book going to be in libraries or not for profit organizations for kids that don’t have access to expensive art books or prestigious art schools?
Adams: It’s funny that you mention that because one of the things that I also do that I haven’t had the chance to talk much about, is that I teach underprivileged kids with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. One of the things that we do is we go into inner city neighborhoods and we explain to kids the benefits of running art. Things like introducing them to Jean-Michel and other artists that may never have heard of. And we [tell them about someone that] they don’t necessarily have anything in common with [except that] they came out of the same neighborhood. We try to show them that there are a lot of other avenues [outside of] rapping or playing basketball. It’s interesting because we get to show them the different sides to hip hop in terms of being creative.

Powerhouse Books, has the Powerhouse Arena and they always have some sort of hip-hop event that stems around fine art. People are getting more opportunities for expressing themselves rather than grabbing a microphone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’ve reached out to corporations to help sponsor some of the programs so that kids can see there art work framed and in an exhibition. One cool thing is that the Guggenheim Museum did a show where they gave young artists’ the opportunity to be in an actual museum show and one of my students was selected which was really an amazing thing. I felt really good that day and I got the sense that times have changed in terms of people helping to educate young inner city youth and children of colour. Russell Simmons has shows as well [Art For Life]. My friend Derrick Adams is the creative director for it. Derrick is somebody like myself is somebody who is very passionate about giving young people an opportunity.

It’s amazing to see the relationship between hip-hop and art and how it has evolved.

It’s not just people in the United States, it’s people all over the world. They all owe a huge debt to graffiti, all of my friends and myself that came up during the ‘80’s because we opened the door to for these people to have huge success.

More Info: http://www.ceyadams.com/

Cey Adams
©2006 Mike Shreiber


  1. Sherlyn Torres says:

    I’m proud to see how far hip hop has come – it’s amazing to know that we’re now producing history books on this stuff! Very inspiring indeed =)…Great interview! I look fwd to checking out Definition…

  2. Great piece for some many reasons! What can I say except that I’m mad proud. To Mr.Adams: Thanks for documenting the continual experience and journey for future generations to come. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Definition.
    Stay Bless.

  3. Fantastic to see a TPA crony get his groove back on. Cey Adams has been constantly changing and evolving into a a real social asset, especially towards the younger generations. What a great link he is and liaison to what we now know as the “older” generation and the kids of today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>