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Meet the Artist Who Went From New York Graffiti Legend to Hip-Hop Graphic Designer

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Sep 18 2019

You might not have realized it in the moment, but you’ve seen Cey Adams’s art—on album covers, gallery walls, and the streets of New York City. In the 70s and 80s, Cey’s earliest work was exhibited next to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring; later, as the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings, he developed the visual identities for the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and more. Recently, you may have also seen his collaboration with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Levi’s. He may not admit it—he's too humble—but Cey has definitively shaped hip-hop culture, design, and beyond.

When I met Cey through a mutual friend, I was immediately taken by his uniquely bold style and refreshingly humble spirit. I asked him if he’d work on a creative project at the IDEO New York office. After the completion of Revolution Solution, we sat down to talk about his creative journey, why he left and then returned to New York, and what it means to be, as he says, “an artist without a blueprint.”

Diana: Let’s start with how you got into hip-hop, working with Russell Simmons and Def Jam.

Cey: When I met Russell in the early 80s, the term hip-hop wasn’t even coined yet—it was just rap music. A photographer had given me Russell’s business card, and I went down to his office to show him my portfolio. All I had were photos of car washes and commercial walls I had painted. But he said, “Okay, we can find something for you to do.” There wasn’t a long-term contract, but to me it might as well have been one. I’m laughing now, but the best thing about being young is that you don’t know enough to feel empowered. You just know they’re not saying “no.”

Did your graffiti art influence your hip-hop design?

To me the responsibility was always how to transform a language everyone was familiar with into something else. You see graffiti on the subway, scrawled on the walls, but I knew it was bigger than that. My question was how to elevate graffiti and keep its integrity.

Was there a breakthrough moment when someone said, “Now I see the power of what you’re creating”?

You know what? I never really heard that. At the time, nobody had formal training so it wasn’t like they understood the power of graphic design. It wasn’t until LL Cool J’s record Mama Said Knock You Out hit number one that I felt that recognition. The album cover was a beautiful black and white photograph of LL shot by famed photographer Michel Comte, and that was when everyone finally saw it as art.

What are you most proud of from that chapter in your creative life?

I think about the artists more than the creative pieces. It’s a little embarrassing to say, but sometimes I’ll dream that it’s 1987 again and we’re on the Together Forever Tour with Run-D.M.C and the Beastie Boys. We’re reliving everything as adults, and we’re all so much more appreciative. Then I wake up and realize it’s just a dream, and Adam Yauch is gone and Jam Master Jay is gone, but I realize I was actually there. During that time I learned about the power I had that I didn’t even know I had.

You went on to art direct the book Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, which captures the essence of the hip-hop era. What came next?

That book is synonymous with hip-hop itself. The fact that the publishers were convinced to make a book so huge is wonderful! The design of that book was completely my vision, I got to experience every creative idea I’ve ever wanted in that book.

Around 9/11, I realized none of this stuff mattered in the same way anymore. I got disillusioned with the business and the misogyny. I knew I couldn’t change how everyone thought, but I could take myself out of the equation. By that time, I’d designed as many albums as I needed to and wanted to try something else.

After spending a few years in Hollywood doing film titles, I moved back to New York to get my hands dirty. I missed making things so I began painting again and learned silk screening. After I made a few pieces, Adidas commissioned me, Shepard Fairey, and a handful of others to make original works for a clothing collection celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali. Working with Adidas was my first major corporate partnership. That got me thinking, maybe partnering with major brands isn’t the worst thing in the world.

At the time, I was also teaching art to high school students at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Over a ten-week course, I had to create dozens of lesson plans. I came up with every possible creative scenario to challenge their notion of what art could and should be. I stumbled into working with collage then.

That was a small start of something big. Tell us more about your work with collage.

For one of my lessons, I cut out a giant letter and had each student pick a color and fill in a small area of collage. The letter was broken up so nobody knew what it spelled. At the end of the project, we’d have a family sharing moment and present the final piece. The students would line up holding letters that spelled “FREEDOM” or “JUSTICE.” It was such a powerful way to communicate. I realized that collage combined what I learned as a graffiti artist with my love for letterforms.

This makes me reflect on a conversation we had at the beginning of our collaboration when you decided to create the number “25” for the IDEO NY mural. We had lots of discussions around bravery and creativity. At one point, you quietly offered that “maybe it’s not about a word.” Tell us why letters and numbers are so important to you.

There’s a simplicity working with letters and numbers. They break down barriers. The process of making collage is so involved that I don’t want the design to get too busy. Letters and numbers let the design be bold and simple, but the execution is always complex.

Speaking of murals, can you tell us about the One Nation mural you created for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture?

When I was invited to make a piece for the ribbon-cutting ceremony with President Obama, I said yes immediately. The whole thing was surreal. Just the existence of the museum was something I’d been waiting a lifetime for. The only guidance they gave me was to make a piece of art that the community could contribute to. A collage was the perfect vehicle to do that. People could contribute to creating a piece that was bigger than themselves. That’s the beauty of collage.

Trusted Brands came next, which brought together your graffiti work and your graphic design work. What inspired the series?

As a kid in the 60s and 70s, I loved seeing huge graphics like the 76 logo whizzing by on the highway—Trusted Brands was an homage to the symbols of that period in my life. As I was working with collage, I started wondering what the next thing was going to be. After doing letters and numbers, I wanted to do a project that nodded to my favorite brands.

Just recently, I partnered with Pabst Blue Ribbon to reimagine their signature 12oz can and launch National Mural Day. Like Trusted Brands, I wanted to pay tribute to the brand’s history and iconography.

Looking back on all of these chapters, is there a specific approach or ritual in your creative process that is the “Cey Adams secret”?

I always try to make work that is positive and uplifting. Even if it’s all black, I’m thinking about how to make something that will make someone feel good.

While you were creating the IDEO NY mural, we had three and a half months of your lovely presence in our studio. What was it like to be with us at IDEO?

One of the coolest things was creating in the lobby. I thought I’d be in a project space, but being in a community space that you can’t control was the best thing I could've done. Had I done it another way, I might've reached the same results visually, but I wouldn’t have had the same experience interacting with people in the moment.

I have such an appreciation that an organization like IDEO exists because it’s so nurturing to creative talent. Even at the age that I am now, I crave it so much! Not that I need to be patted on the back everyday, but it’s refreshing, that feeling of love and support is foreign to me.

A peek into Cey Adams' creative process. Video produced by Ian Gittler.

  • Diana Rhoten

    Managing Director, IDEO New York
    Diana is the Managing Director of IDEO’s New York office. She works with organizations to reimagine who they are, what they do, and how they do it.
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