Cey Adams (American, b. 1962), New York City native and visionary artist, emerged from the downtown graffiti movement in the 80’s alongside fellow artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Adams began his art career while still in his teens, tagging “Cey City” on subway cars and painting graffiti murals to showcase his artwork.

At 19, Adams was represented by Graffiti Above Ground gallery in lower Manhattan, the first gallery to represent prominent graffiti artists. Adams was immersed in the downtown art and music scene. During this time he met the Beastie Boys. He developed a fast friendship with the band and designed their first logo, t-shirts and singles. The Beastie Boys and Adams would go on to be longtime collaborators including designing their 1998 album “Hello Nasty”.

Around the same time he met manager/music producer Russell Simmons at RUSH Artist Management, where Adams designed logos and merch for the artist roster including Kurtis Blow, Whodini, and Jimmy Spicer. A few years later Simmons along with music producer Rick Rubin founded Def Jam Recordings. It is where Adams had the opportunity to showcase everything he learned up to this point.

Adams served as the founding Creative Director at Def Jam Recordings, and along with his business partner Steve Carr, co-founded The Drawing Board, the label’s in-house design firm, where they “defined the visual culture of Hip-Hop”. The creative firm was responsible for some of the most iconic album covers, logos and advertising campaigns for Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, The Notorious B.I.G., DMX, Jay-Z, Usher, Mary J. Blige, and many more.

In 2016, Adams was commissioned by The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to make an artwork titled ONE NATION. The large scale (Black) American flag collage piece was made live on the National Mall in Washington, DC, at “Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration”, a three-day festival celebrating the historic occasion. The festival included performances by Public Enemy, The Roots, Meshell Ndegeocello, and a ribbon cutting ceremony by President Barack Obama. ONE NATION honors heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and is part of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture permanent collection.

ONE NATION is part of Adams’ Trusted Brand series of mixed media collage works of popular American brand logos from his youth, including Cap’N Crunch, Coca-Cola, GE, Hot Wheels, Barbie, and Zenith. Adams draws inspiration from 60’s pop art, vintage sign painting, and comics. His work focuses on themes including pop culture, brand identity, cultural, and community issues.

In 2019, Pabst Brewing Company commissioned Adams to “reimagine” their iconic Pabst Blue Ribbon logo. The brand placed Adams’ design on 150 million cans and were displayed and distributed nationally. The partnership included the launch of the inaugural National Mural Day on May 19, 2019. Adams curated the mural artists Pabst Blue Ribbon partnered with for murals in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Detroit, Seattle and created a mural in Brooklyn, NY for the launch.

Adams has collaborated with global brands including Levi’s, Mattel, The Recording Academy, Apple, Bacardi, IDEO, Foot Locker, Converse, YouTube, Google, and many more.

He exhibits, lectures, and teaches art workshops at leading institutions including: The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Brooklyn Museum, Museum of the City of New York, School of Visual Arts, Temple University, MoCA Los Angeles, Stanford University, Howard University, University of Michigan, among others.

Adams designed the award-winning Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap (Smithsonian/Folkways), a box set including a 300-page book and 9 CD set; curated and designed The Mash Up: Hip-Hop Photos Remixed by Iconic Graffiti Artists (Hat & Beard Press); designed Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (Rizzoli); and co-authored DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop (Harper-Collins).

Departure: 40 Years of Art & Design, Adams’ retrospective exhibition, debuted in 2022 at Stone Gallery at Boston University. It is currently on view at the College of Visual Arts & Design Gallery at the University of North Texas, Denton. The exhibition will continue to travel in 2024 and beyond.

photos courtesy of Janette Beckman