Pioneer Street Artist Cey Adams Talks New Artwork, Evolution & The Importance of Community

By Bianca Gracie | October 31, 2022

This feature is in the December "The Creators" Issue. Click here to subscribe.

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Adams portrait by Robert Bredvad

Street art, from subway graffiti to wall murals, once was seen as an outcast in the art world when it first appeared during the graffiti boom in the early ‘60s. Now, the conversation has rightfully transformed into a more inclusive one with street artists from all corners of the world being respected for their contributions.

Cey Adams, a pioneer among this community, has a career that spans four decades. He began subway car–tagging graffitist in the ‘70s and was major part of the thrilling ‘80s New York art scene alongside friends Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Adams later carried his graffiti foundation to Def Jam, where he was the founding Creative Director for Def Jam Recordings. There, he breathed life into hip-hop through album covers, logos, and advertising campaigns for legends like Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G., Maroon 5, and Jay-Z. Now, with his work show in galleries and museums worldwide, Adams speaks to EDITION ahead of his showing at West Chelsea Contemporary’s “Concrete to Canvas” exhibit in New York City (which runs from October 29 through December 23).

“It's really more about having a gallery that I have a solid relationship with and somebody that understands the work that I make,” Adams says about being displayed at the West Chelsea Contemporary. “A lot of my contemporaries at this point, we've been making work for the better part of 40 years, and to find partners that appreciate the journey is really what it's all about because there are so many copycats out there now that are mimicking the artists that came up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

“It's really difficult to find partners that can not only appreciate the work that we do but the historical context in which the work is represented. For me, that's one of the things that I place a lot of importance on, and the same thing goes with the collectors that purchase the work. All those things matter.”

Below, read on for more of Adams’ gem-filled discussion with EDITION.

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Cey Adams, "American Flag (White)" print. Courtesy of artist & West Chelsea Contemporary.

You just mentioned people mimicking the work from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Can you touch on that a bit more? I'm interested to hear your perspective since you came up during that era.

Well, what I mean by that is that there's just a lot of noise. Whether it's social media or just people that are so young, they don't even understand that they're copying an artist who's still alive. If you look at anything that's going on with the work of my friends Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol, you see all these younger artists that are copying those styles and they don't understand that was somebody that walked the streets and made work. It's not just something that's on the Internet.

I definitely could agree with that. Warhol is one of my favorite artists, also Basquiat, but I feel like with my millennial generation, sometimes those things could be misconstrued as trends and people don't often either want to learn about the background of these artists or get to know the work itself. It’s just more like, ‘this is cool, print it on a hoodie’ or something like that. They don't really get the actual insight behind their artistry.

Right. It was an actual person. It's not just a graphic. When you think about these people not being around anymore, it's up to people like myself to keep their memories alive. So, I mention them quite often when I'm talking about my work because I want people to understand that they were here once upon a time. We all hung out together and made work together. It's not just something that is to be taken lightly and to be exploited.

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Cey Adams, "LOVE (Wildflower)". Courtesy of artist & West Chelsea Contemporary.

Speaking of your work, I'm looking at your “Love (Wildflower)” print that’s part of the exhibit. I want to go into your brain a little bit and find out how this print came about.

It started with the gallery seeing the murals that I was doing around the country, and they asked me to make a special piece of work that was unique for the gallery and its collectors. I took one of the designs that I enjoyed making and I decided I was going to make a brand-new piece of work exclusively for this purpose. I really tried to keep the essence of the work that I do in the street, but I wanted it to have the detail and the texture that the paintings have that I make in the studio.

What I like about it is it has hard and soft qualities to it. Are those newspaper cutouts?

Um, some. A lot of it is vintage magazines. A lot of my friends are photographers, so I try to incorporate their work whenever possible and it's a lot of fun to be able to work in conjunction with somebody that is giving you permission and you're not taking these things out of context. For me, that's a large part of what I do with the work that I make. I really want to tell a story but it's not just about myself, it's about the people that I came up with. Whether they have photographers or illustrators or other artists and try to weave those things into the narrative of the painting.

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Cey Adams, "Texaco". Courtesy of artist & West Chelsea Contemporary.

I do like this Texaco one as well. It’s such an iconic image. Is there a certain interpretation or message behind this one?

It's about trying to find new ways to interpret things that people are familiar with depending on what age they are. If you're somebody that grew up in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, it means one thing to you. If you are much younger, it's a logo that you're very familiar with in the same way that you might be familiar with a brand like Coca-Cola and to some degree even AT&T and maybe Apple. A lot of what I'm trying to do is to breathe new life into these graphics but not change anything. If you look at a lot of the work that I make, you'll see that not a line is out of place if you compare it to a logo that you might see on a sign or billboard. The idea is to try to keep the integrity that the original artist made when they created it. That comes from me being an artist and a designer. If somebody was to treat my work with the same kind of respect, I'd understand that they clearly know what they're doing.

You mentioned community a little while ago. Have you seen that presence, especially with the millennial generation?

Certainly, there's a community. You see it every time there's an art opening. While everybody understands the need to be on social media, nothing can replace human interaction. I think that ultimately, that's one of my favorite things about making art. Being able to get real-time feedback from your friends in person, whenever you go out. And now that the pandemic is…now that we're all familiar with what it's capable of, I think people are ready to get back outside and to interact with folks, and that's the same for people young and old. When I think about community, that's the community that I'm referring to. Folks that have a common appreciation for not just art making, but how important it is to gather and celebrate each other.

I’m getting a private walk-through of the exhibit, so I'm excited to see all these images come to life and really soak it in. It's another thing to actually take everything that we've discussed and have them at the back of my mind when I see the pieces in real life.

Right. That’s the most important thing. It’s great to look at photographs if you're lucky enough to actually be in front of an original piece of work, no matter who it's from. There are things that in some cases don't translate into photographs. And that's really especially true of my work. When you see the texture and the detail and all of the hours that were labored over it, it's a big deal to be able to stand there and really take it all in.

You're a pioneer in the art community and in hip-hop culture. I'm curious to know what continues to fuel your inspiration and love for the arts.

Well, first and foremost, just being alive. It's not a small thing. Especially, like I said, dealing with the pandemic. Artists work in a vacuum but there's nothing more amazing than being in front of people and feeling that love. It's the same thing with performers when they're on stage. On social media, you can't feel that. But when you're standing in front of somebody and they're giving you an opportunity to just tell them how much they love what you do in person, there’s no better feeling than that. I just had an opening a couple of weeks ago from my Retrospective exhibition. It was wonderful to see people come out and there's absolutely no substitute for that. No matter what anybody says.

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Concrete to Canvas New York Photos Courtesy of West Chelsea Contemporary.

We're both native New Yorkers and we both grew up around hip-hop and of course, Def Jam was many people’s hip-hop Bible. Do music and your background with Def Jam still play a role in your current artwork?

Sure, sure, I mean, every time you turn around, we're hitting another milestone. An anniversary every year. It means more now than ever before because so many folks are no longer with us and it's really important to celebrate people. I can't even believe that there are all these 30th and 35th anniversaries. It's amazing to think about how much people still love this music and the art. After all these years it seems like it's only getting stronger with time.

What are your thoughts on the current hip-hop generation?

You know what? I really like the idea that young people understand that it's important to look back and to show respect. That's the thing that I take the most joy with. Watching them celebrate people who paved the way for them to be able to do what they're doing and not take it lightly. There's just so much going on and so many people making music but If I had to pick one person, I would say Lizzo. She's so smart and so aware and to me, she's born right out of Lady Gaga. I know that sounds funny because they're not that different in age, but I just like the energy that both of them have and the idea that they're guiding a whole new generation of young people to not be afraid to think for themselves, but also to share with others. It's not all about “me, me, me.” In the old days, it was the rock star on the pedestal and everybody down below. And now, people realize you can be a superstar and still be humble and grounded and share love with the people that helped support you.

It goes back to what we were discussing about community. These artists like Lizzo and Lady Gaga want the same with their fans, and I think that relatability creates even more excitement and energy when it comes to creating art.

Yeah, and it’s inspiring and it shows people, in real-time, that you can do it too.

I think the barriers are being broken more and more and there's just even more inclusivity. Whether it's with the contemporary arts, street art, or music, there's an opportunity for everyone to really shine.

Sure, artists are getting opportunities now much, much faster than 20, 30, or 40 years ago. The idea that [painter] Amy Sherald could have a portrait painted of [former First Lady Michelle Obama] and get all this adulation and have her work celebrated in the Smithsonian. It's a big, big deal. It's like myself having an opportunity to work with the Smithsonian is gigantic. I would have never imagined that. But it took me 40 years. It happened much, much faster for somebody like her, and I think that's the beauty of where we are now. People don't have to wait as long, and they also understand in real time what's possible.

Are there any other artists within the contemporary art world that you're a fan of?

I tend to be a big supporter of street art and I also like the idea that some of my friends that are a little bit older are getting opportunities like Charly Palmer out of Atlanta. My buddy Fahamu Pecou. He's also coincidentally out of Atlanta. There’s quite a few. I don't have their names on tip of my tongue, but I buy a lot of art and I try to support as many artists as I can. These various galleries sell my work, but it's a great thing to see them even have an opportunity, and for me that that's the best part of all. To be able to make work, meet these artists, and shine a light on, not only what I'm doing, but what they're doing.

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Concrete to Canvas New York Photos Courtesy of West Chelsea Contemporary.

Speaking of street art, you've seen it take its own shape throughout the decades. What are your thoughts on the way it has evolved?

I think it's great. I was telling my son just a few minutes ago that a couple of years back I was working with Whoopi Goldberg on some art for a film that she was doing about the life of Emmett Till. It took a year to get the film made and I thought it was dead in the water and then all of a sudden, boom. The film had gotten greenlighted, and it is done. I was so excited and then I saw a buddy of mine out of New Orleans do a giant painting of Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till. Things like that are wonderful. The idea that a young contemporary artist can celebrate the life of somebody that's no longer alive, that's how you keep those stories alive by young artists breathing new life into their stories. Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks. People have heard these stories, but they don't know these people. By making this kind of work, it introduces young people to these folks that you know have been going for in some cases 40 years, and that's a long time. That's a parent’s whole lifetime.

I'm a big advocate for nostalgia and being a journalist, speaking to certain subjects or wanting to listen to a certain album can spark inspiration. It's definitely a cycle.

Yeah, and ultimately the idea that not only can you learn about these folks, but [thanks to] social media, you can put your hands on them immediately. You can have instant interaction, whereas in the old days you might have had to write a letter, wait around, and maybe nothing would have happened. Now, it can happen so much faster. To me, that's the best thing about this time that we're living in right now. People know it's possible.

Photography by: Artwork courtesy of Cey Adams; Adams portrait by Robert Bredvad; Concrete to Canvas New York Photos Courtesy of West Chelsea Contemporary.