Pop Art Icon Cey Adams

Featured Image: Adams at Juilliard unveiling the M.L.K. Life and Legacy mural, a collaboration between Cey and members of the Juilliard community.

Thanks to my husband, I recently had an opportunity to sit down, have lunch and spend an afternoon with Cey Adams. Cey transformed from a rebellious teen street artist to become the founding Creative Director of Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings.  From the graffiti movement of the 70’s and early 80’s, Cey left his mark on subway cars, storefronts, and city streets. Cey’s work became recognized by Joyce Towbin who initially recruited him to spray paint tee shirts and hats at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Cey’s career skyrocketed from that point.  While at Def Jam, he created album covers for Jay-Z, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Notorious B.I.G., Maroon 5, Mary J. Blige, Don Henley and many others. Adams has also created logos and advertising for major brands such as Nike, HBO, Coca-Cola, Burton Snowboards, Moët & Chandon, and Comedy Central.  He exhibits, lectures and teaches art workshops at institutions including MoMA, Walker Art Center, MoCA Los Angeles, Pratt Institute, Stamford University, Howard University, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, High Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Mount Royal University and The University of Winnipeg in Canada. Recently, Cey was enlisted by the Smithsonian to engage in the live painting of One Nation, a 12 foot by 6 foot mural of a black American flag, which is now part of the permanent collection of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I knew an interview with Cey Adams would be a one-of-a-kind. See below:

ID: Can you give us a brief history of how you started out? How you got where you are today?

CA: My journey began as a teenage graffiti artist during the early 70’s. Back then my friends and I were very much rebels of a culture that was still in early development. I turned professional at the tender age of 17, fresh out of high school. I spray painted signs for local shop owners on store front roll down gates, car washes and auto body repair shops to make cash. Back then, local mom and pop shop owners were the only ones supporting my work. I did that for a few years until my career as a fine artist began. My journey has been long and steady with many peaks and valleys along the way.

ID. What sets you apart?

CA: I don’t feel like anything sets me apart from other artists making good work. We all have to deal with life’s highs and lows.  I’ve been very fortunate to have people that believe in what I’m doing. If I had to pick one thing…I think time is the best teacher. Learning from past mistakes helps!

ID: Please tell us about the influence and effect Joyce Towbin had on your life?
CA: As a young artist growing up in New York City, meeting someone like Joyce Towbin Chasan really changed my life. She taught me how to conduct myself as a professional artist. Working with her back then was very important to my creative development.  Joyce taught me many life lessons. Her gallery was a Motown finishing school for graffiti artists. Working with her, I learned how to stretch canvas and how to conduct myself when speaking to the press during an interview. She was the first person who encouraged me to learn to drive. She also always reminded me to save some of my earnings from sales of paintings. We had long conversations about the beauty and the value of the work we were doing. I remember feeling for the first time that somebody truly believed in me as an Artist.


ID. What are the main things you keep in mind when creating a piece of art?

CA: I constantly remind myself to live in the moment. Enjoy every step of the process. Remember to have fun…making art is a privilege.

ID: Tell us about a career highlight / Any career decisions you regret?

CA: A few years back Adidas commissioned me to make a painting and design my own custom collection of apparel for Muhammad Ali. I’ve always been inspired by his courage throughout my life. It was truly a dream come true.  Regrets: I try to remain focused on the positive…regrets are a waste of energy. I live for today, always moving forward!

ID: Where do you find inspiration?

CA: I had artists and others whose work inspired me like James Rosenquist, Richard Serra, Romare Bearden and Andy Warhol. I’m a student of Pop Art. I was fortunate to hang with Andy during the 80’s, he was very kind with his time and advice. 

ID: Whose artwork do you have in your home, besides your own?

CA: Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, (photographers) Neil Leifer, Danny Clinch

ID: What is your favorite piece you’ve ever done? 

CA: I’m really proud of my recent “TRUSTED BRANDS” series. It’s a collection of collage paintings that celebrate classic American nostalgia. I love talking to people and seeing their reaction to the powerful graphics on canvas. Everyone’s got a relationship to history, people love sharing their memories with me.

ID: Who is your favorite artist?

CA: Growing up I was a huge fan of (Mad magazine) illustrator Jack Davis. I spent hours in my bedroom copying his character style and color techniques. His art was the foundation for a lot of my graphic design work.

ID: Tell us something  – like a crazy talent – we would be surprised to know.

CA: I don’t really have a crazy talent. I still play basketball with my childhood friends in Manhattan. It’s sort of a celebrity league. (Lots of big names come through.)  I’m a huge fan of music! 50’s Doo Wop, 60’s Aretha Franklin, Monkees, Dusty Springfield, 70’s Al Green, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac.

ID: Describe to us a typical day in the life of Cey Adams…

CA: My days involve painting for a few hours, packing and shipping art to be sent to galleries, working with silkscreen printers on print editions, consulting on various mural and design projects. Finding time to eat and exercise is always tough, it’s always busy in the studio. Every day is a new creative adventure! 

Cey, my readers and I thank you for this interview! It was positively a privilege!

Images courtesy of Cey Adams


  1. Thanks, Lara! Cey is truly a special guy.

  2. Lara

    What an interesting, talented man! Thank you for sharing about him!

  3. Thanks, Teresa! It is an amazing piece!

  4. Teresa Katz

    Very interesting. Can’t wait to see the Flag!