Cey Adams at work in his studio. Photo courtesy of the artist. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Flex Life: How Cey Adams Went From Subway Tagger to Superstar Artist

The man who created the Beastie Boys’ logo — and designed countless album covers for Def Jam — got his start with a can of spray paint.
How does a subway graffiti artist end up designing for Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Mary J. Blige, and other hip-hop superstars? New York City native
Cey Adams
started tagging subway cars as a kid and was featured in the groundbreaking documentary
Style Wars
. He soon exhibited alongside such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and became the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings. He continues to create his own work, which has been shown at such institutions as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and MoCA Los Angeles.
We spoke with Adams at a recent Sentral Explorer event to learn how his early work in graffiti informed the groundbreaking art he is creating today.

How did you get your start as a graffiti artist? 

A mural painted by Cey Adams in New Bedford, Mass. Photo courtesy of the artist.
I knew I wanted to be an artist since I was five. My graffiti career began when I was still a teenager in high school. I was just attracted to it. I was fascinated by the calligraphy. I loved the way it looked. 

What was it like when you were writing graffiti on subways? 

I was really young, and I didn’t look old enough to go to the places where I really wanted to hang out. So
is just what we did. It was me and some friends with a couple of cans of paint, floating around the city just tagging and bombing everywhere. 
How did you find yourself at the center of the downtown New York scene? 
I just really wanted to be there. You know the Talking Heads song “
This Must Be the Place
”? Well, I thought to myself, “This must be the place.” I knew when I found it, this is it. These are the people. They look cooler than everybody in my neighborhood.  

How did you work your way in? 

It was a matter of knowing the people who could physically introduce me to the people who were my idols. And that eventually came together once I connected with the Beastie Boys. My graffiti friends helped grant me access to a lot of the places that I would not have found on my own. 

Your collaboration with the Beastie Boys goes back a long way. Tell us about it.  

I had a relationship with the Beastie Boys that dated back to 1982-83. When I started working with them, we were doing everything as a team. We would sit down and make creative decisions and figure out how to execute them. We made flyers and posters together in the early ‘80s when they were still a punk band. I was doing everything by hand. Every cap that you saw with their logo on it, I hand painted each one. If you saw a poster somewhere, I made it by hand. I took it to Kinko’s myself. The DIY aesthetic of punk rock was the only thing I had to go on. But I had graffiti training to teach me, so I knew how to make flyers. I had an understanding of space and balance. And the guys in the band were just like, “Great!” There were no adults getting in the way of the creative process. The image that comes to mind is Charlie Brown and his friends all saying, “Let’s put on a show!” That’s really what it was like. There were no adults involved. 

So doing graphic design for hip-hop artists became your thing. 

I was hanging out with the Beastie Boys and I knew
, but there was nobody else in that camp that was a visual artist except me. That gave me a lane all to myself, because when the time came for them to put the record label together, there was nobody else that wanted to design albums. There was nobody that knew how to design albums. I was the only one, so I got the opportunity. 

What was it like working for Def Jam when it was just getting started? 

For starters, it didn’t feel like work. It was just this creative hub. Everyone came together and shared ideas. It was wonderful. And the reason it was wonderful is that our lives were simpler. All you had to do was figure out how to get from point A to point B and earn enough money to eat for the day. 
“Kool-Aid” by Cey Adams. Photo courtesy of the artist.

And you were doing it without any technical training in graphic design? 

Graphic design was a language I understood even when I didn’t have the technical skills under my belt yet. I knew how to draw and paint clean lines because of my graffiti skills. Making drawings in black books, knowing how to use a ruler and a T-square, I just knew how to do it. It was something instinctual. I knew the language of how to put together a record cover. So when Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons] gave me the opportunity, I was ready.  

What were your collaborations like? 

Collaborating with the artists was easy because in some cases we came from the same neighborhoods. We spoke a lot of the same language. They would play a piece of music and I would respond in a graphic language that matched that.  

Were you making your own art all this time? 

Def Jam
started in 1984, but by 1986 when I had my own staff, I had the resources to have my own studio. So I started making paintings and showing in galleries.
Adams’ recent work plays with familiar corporate iconography. Photo courtesy of the artist.

There seems to be a real connection between your studio art and your graphic design work. 

Once I started to make paintings, I wanted to go back to that early period and try to make a connection between what I knew how to do as a graffiti artist and what I loved about graphic design. And to me nothing does that better than logos. So I used logos and developed a collage technique that made it my own. 

And graffiti is often just a kind of logo.  

We use the term branding a lot now. But that’s what graffiti is. It’s just repetition. It’s the name over and over and over again because that’s what it takes to remind people that you’re here and that you exist. I learned later that that’s advertising. 

Tell us about your black and white American flags. 

“Free World” by Cey Adams. Photo courtesy of the artist.
These flags tell stories of particular individuals. I focus on the Civil Rights Movement — Martin Luther King, JFK, Malcolm X — but I want people to understand that it is telling a story about America. The black and white is there to get your attention, because if you are looking at red, white, and blue, you immediately go to a patriotic position. But if you look at it with an absence of color, you’re forced to look at what’s going on inside. 

You’ve done so many things in your career. Is there anything you feel especially proud of? 

When I started making art as a teenager, people were so dismissive. Graffiti art was not respected. Now, I am working with the
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
. It’s a dream come true. It’s a lifetime journey to get to a point like that. To have President Obama acknowledge my journey and that of all of my friends, that’s it, I’m done. Mission Accomplished. There’s no better feeling than that.