Keith Haring x Polaroid

Cey Adams: the US artist and downtown NYC legend who visualised 80s East Coast hip-hop
By Clementine Zawadzki | Art | 26 July 2021

After emerging in the 80s alongside Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat as one of New York’s pre-eminent graffiti artists, Cey Adams never strayed far from the city’s burgeoning street movements. Later that decade Adams became the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings, the so-called ‘last great record label’ that pioneered legendary hip-hop acts like LL Cool J, Slick Rick, The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Adams was at the centre of these artists’ visual style, creating the logos, cover art, touring posters and merchandise that became such an integral part of their global success.

Since 2000, the visual artist, graphic designer and author has continued to bring his street art-inspired aesthetic and hip-hop royalty status to international audiences. From painting subway trains under cover of darkness to unveiling 100ft billboards on Times Square, Adams can look back on a journey in which he has helped oversee the elevation of graffiti from the streets into museum exhibitions.

In celebration of a new camera and film that honours Polaroid’s iconic relationship with Keith Haring, we speak to Adams about his incredible career and longtime relationship with the artist: “I’m so excited to be a part of the Polaroid x Keith Haring collaboration because I get an opportunity to share the Keith Haring I knew and let everyone know he was an absolutely wonderful person ‘in the moment.’”

Photography by Andrew Tess

Clementine Zawadzki: Cey, your career is enviable…
Cey Adams: I’ve been very fortunate. The thing I realise now, I have been working longer than I knew Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and those guys, because I was a teenager when I knew them… maybe early 20s at best by the time they passed away. It was like a lifetime ago, but they were such rich, beautiful years that helped to establish who I became as an adult.

CZ: Let’s talk about that particular collective including the artists you just mentioned like Keith and Jean-Michel Basquiat. What were the early days of the ‘downtown graffiti movement’ like?
CA: I didn’t know we were living in such a great time. I knew it was something special to be in the presence of someone like Andy Warhol for instance, but although Keith was a bright, energetic figure, he was also an artist. As a teenager, you don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about how special your friends are, they’re just your friends. You go through your experiences together, and I would go home and think, “Wow, that was a lot of fun,” but I didn’t over-analyse it. I over-analysed being around Andy, because he was already a superstar, and he was everything you can imagine. Andy played a big part in all our lives because he set the blueprint that we all aspired to.

As you can see all these years later, that turned out to be absolutely true. It was also a much simpler time. In the scheme of things, we were a very small group of people. Myself, Keith, Jean-Michel… Kenny Scharf was there as well… Fab 5 Freddy, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, a very young LL Cool J… we were all just young kids trying to make our mark in entertainment and the art world. We were trying to figure out what our voice, our language was going to be. Especially myself, being an artist of colour, there was no one that looked like me that was doing things on a very high scale at the time. 

CZ: Do you feel that blueprint in the art scene has made it more inclusive and accessible for aspiring artists today?
CA: It’s easy to see the future when someone shows you the future. When we were starting out, adults weren’t paying a whole lot of attention to what we were doing. There also wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made, but you were going to keep doing it until great things started to happen. But that’s also the beauty of being young with all this time to develop and learn, picking up cues from artists or musicians that are older and more successful, if you’re lucky enough to be in their orbit. That’s why I mention Andy, because it was like a dream come true to be in a room with him and ask him questions, even though Andy was a person of very few words… I added the rest myself. Andy also shared his success with everyone else, so you got an opportunity to dine at these really wonderful restaurants like Mr Chow’s and not worry about the bill. Young people have to contend with so much more now, like actually thinking about being successful. At that point, just surviving was plenty.

“Andy [Warhol] played a big part in all our lives because he set the blueprint that we all aspired to.”

Photography by Andrew Tess

CZ: You say it was a simpler time, but there’s always a risk in pursuing your passions. Is there anything in particular you learned from your peers at that time that’s stuck with you all these years?
CA: Certainly. What stays with me the most is giving back in the moment. That’s one of the things that was really great about what Keith did. He shared in the moment and was constantly working with HIV and AIDS organisations, donating artwork, giving away free t-shirts and buttons to people on the street. He just shared everything he had and that was something I took away from that experience. We were also very close in age, probably only three to five years between us. To see another young person knowing how to share and how to care was something that was really valuable. We came from the same sort of background, same sort of family structure, but making it as a fine artist was a very difficult thing. When I think about Keith, I think sharing love is the thing he did the most, and he did it with ease. He was very comfortable with babies, teenagers, adults, older people, and his work spoke to that. Everybody loved his creative sensibility.

CZ: And they still do today, especially with the inclusion of social platforms. What do you think continues to make Keith’s work so vital?
CA: What is so beautiful about Keith’s art is that it translates from generation to generation. That’s something you couldn’t have predicted in the 80s or in the 90s. Young people have the benefit of being introduced to his work; they just don’t have the man to go with it. They don’t know what it was like to be at a party with him, to watch him just being free, and enjoying himself and sharing that with his friends.

That’s really why I’m so excited to be a part of the Polaroid x Keith Haring collaboration because I get an opportunity to share the Keith Haring I knew and let everyone know he was an absolutely wonderful person ‘in the moment’. It’s not like he was waiting to become ‘Keith Haring the famous artist’, he was just that loving, caring guy. His art was the perfect vehicle to express that. The one takeaway I have in my art now is I want to make art that people can enjoy, that’s why my colours are always bright and the message is always about positivity. At the end of the day, that is the thing I want people to remember the most about my art, and that’s something I learned from Keith. 

“When I think about Keith, I think sharing love is the thing he did the most, and he did it with ease.”

CZ: As the creative director of Def Jam Recordings, you created the visual identities, album covers, logos, and advertising campaigns for Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and more! How would you describe the relationship between art and music?
CA: For me, the most important thing is listening. The first thing recording artists want is for you to hear their music and to understand what their message is. What I learned from working with Run-DMC and Beastie Boys and LL Cool J is you have to listen, so I listen to the music and take it in, and try to create some sort of visual representation of that music. Again, the thing to keep in mind is being a young twenty-something and being able to figure this out with no roadmap was difficult. It never occurred to me that I was being a trailblazer. To me, this was another extension of what I did when I was hanging out with Keith and Jean-Michel, only now it’s in the form of record design.

In retrospect, it was a calling. You can only paint on subway trains for so long and that had a whole outlaw aspect to it. This was something that was legitimate and I knew it in the moment. It was an avenue to be my creative self and earn a living. As people started to pay more attention, I got more opportunities with artists like Public Enemy, Jay Z, The Notorious B. I. G. and all of that was established because of the work I did in the early days of Def Jam. As the label grew, I grew, and was able to give people opportunities whether they were illustrators, photographers, or graphic designers. In that way, I had the chance to share my work with people the way Keith did back in the day.

Photography by Andrew Tess

CZ: In what ways do you continuously push the boundaries of creativity?
CA: I think I’ve been very fortunate. The thing that helps is there’s so many young people that want to be artists and creatives now, and I have so much information to share because they weren’t there…their parents weren’t even there. This is a moment in time like the period in the 60s when the British Invasion happened, or when Motown and the soul movement exploded, and all of this talent came from these small areas and everybody wants to participate in this. I’m a voice from that generation to remind people you just have to believe in yourself. I know it sounds simple, but there’s so much noise out in the world that it’s very easy to doubt yourself. I still feel like that confused 20-year-old kid that wants to be an artist. Every time I get to go to my studio and make work, I’m just happy. I’m just absolutely happy.

CZ: Being so young, you all achieved so much in creating a path that broke down so many barriers, both in the context of your artwork and practice…
CA: You know, every time you look at yourself in the mirror, you have to know you have value. You don’t have to be the best artist, musician, dancer, but you have to know you have value. It’s something I take away myself. I just want to put good art into the universe and I learned that from my good friend, Keith.

The Polaroid X Keith Haring Edition Polaroid Now Camera is available at Polaroid.com (£129.99).

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