As a young man in New York City, street artist Cey Adams could never have imagined where his gritty expressions on the walls of subway stations might take him. His works became regarded, along with the signature images of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as the beginning of an important artistic movement.
“We were very young when we started making work in the ‘80s,” Adams recalled. “I didn’t see it as a career path, it wasn’t an option, but it was in my blood from the very beginning.”
His distinctive images would catch the eye of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons who made him creative director of Def Jam Recordings. Adams would go on to co-found Drawing Board, the label’s in-house design firm, where he created album covers, logos and advertising campaigns for Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G., Maroon 5 and Jay-Z.
“I taught myself how to do a lot of the traditional graphic design,” he said. “That was a huge challenge for me. At that time, it was an industry trade. You had to know certain things to communicate with printers and vendors. I had to teach myself (through) trial and error, but I had the creativity and that helped a lot.”
Just as he had helped define a genre with his street art, Adams now was writing the visual language of the hip hop movement and his influence continues.
“It was rough, there were no blueprint to follow, no role models. Nobody had done hip-hop before,” Adams said.
In recent years, Adams has turned his efforts toward the new generations of artists. He frequently serves as a mentor to youth from communities of color and shares his own success story across the country. On Thursday, March 8, Adams will discuss “Creating Awareness Through Art” at the monthly Business for the Arts Broward breakfast in Fort Lauderdale. Artwork created during a three-day workshop by Adams and local youth for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s AIDS Walk also will be unveiled at the meeting at Stache.
“I feel I have a lot of history and knowledge to share, when I’m talking about my work,” he said. “I recognize that I’m somebody who has worked with some superstars (and) a lot of young people wonder what it’s like,” referring to not only Basquiat and Haring, but also his long list of famous musical artists.
HIV/AIDS is also an important cause for the artist who lived in the West Village and watched many friends and colleagues—including Haring—succumb to the disease in the mid-1980s.
“That was a creative community and watching all those people disappear was an instant call to action. That’s why I continue to do work with charitable organizations. It’s a responsibility, the job of an artist to shine a light on those things, whether we’re painters or dancers or musicians. I come from that generation that makes change through making art. Watching them perish only made me want to get out there and do more,” he concluded.