When Cey Adams was a kid bombing subway trains in New York, he never imagined that decades later, he'd be giving talks at the Museum of Modern Art.
"I was very lucky," says Adams. "I was in the right place at the right time in history, but I was also the right person, and that's something that's not lost on me." The young graffiti writer came of age in the 1980s just as Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys were blowing up. Adams met Adam Horovitz — Ad Rock — outside a club called Danceteria in 1983, when the Beasties' single "Cooky Puss" was being played on underground radio. They asked if Adams would design a cover for the 12-inch of the record. Soon enough, he was traveling on the Licensed to Ill world tour and designing T-shirts for the group.
Not long after, he met Russell Simmons. "It was a chance encounter, and I had to turn it into whatever it was," he remembers. His hustle led him to work for Simmons' new upstart label called Def Jam Recordings. He served as creative director for the label's in-house design firm, the Drawing Board, until 2000. He has worked for Diddy's Bad Boy Records and done corporate ad campaigns for Nike and Pepsi. Today, Adams, now in his early 50s and considered a hip-hop legend, still paints, designs, and teaches and lectures all over the world.
He will be in and around Fort Lauderdale this week for Red Eye, an annual weeks-long exhibition and one-night "art happening" put on by ArtServe, Broward County's arts incubator — a nonprofit group that helps artists in their business ventures. Adams accepted the invitation from his friend Allan Baldwin, program director and curator at ArtServe. The exhibit opened July 6, but the main event is Saturday, July 25, from 6 to 10 p.m. The exhibit celebrates street art, featuring more than 110 pieces from 50 artists. It runs through August 14.
Billed as a "Warholian Art Happening," the evening will feature ten painters creating art live in the gallery. There will be music, supplied by DJs and the band Bluejay; food trucks will convene in the parking lot. Two films will be screened: The Radiant Child, a documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat; and Coming Home, a documentary about two Cuban-American hip-hop artists who travel to their paternal homeland. Pieces on display include an eight-foot robot made from cardboard and hot glue by artist Tyler K. Smith.
"Red Eye is different," says Smith. "It is more of an interdisciplinary, happening event as opposed to a traditional visual-art opening where you're looking at static sculpture and paintings on a wall." It is the 25-year-old ArtServe's biggest event every year since its inception ten years ago.
Adams' involvement marks the first time an outside artist has been brought in for Red Eye. According to Baldwin, his suggestion of bringing in a nonlocal artist was met with some reluctance from others at ArtServe, but he believes Adams' presence will draw more people to the event. The inclusion of Adams, he says, has already garnered more media attention from many outlets. "This isn't someone who's looking to come here and take opportunities away from local artists," Baldwin says. "This is someone who's coming here to explain an art form."
During the ten days he is in Fort Lauderdale, Adams has a full schedule. He will mentor the live painters featured at Red Eye and give a talk on his work as well as on the Basquiat documentary. He will teach classes for students at Dillard High School and the Art Institute at the Urban League. He intends to paint a mural at Bar Stache, and several of his pieces will be featured at Forre & Co. fine art gallery on Las Olas Boulevard, where he will also give a talk about his experiences and his upcoming work.
Adams is bringing with him his new series called "Trusted Brands," his homage to iconic American logos that he remembers from childhood and that have stood the test of time.
"The paintings are really based on childhood memories," says Adams. "I grew up playing with Hot Wheels, drinking Coca-Cola, eating Cap'n Crunch. For me, this series is an homage to the pop artists of the '60s. I've been a fan of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns since I was a kid."
Adams says he stays young and relevant by working with young people, budding artists, kids he can mentor who are eager for his stories.
"Mentoring kids is one of the benefits to having a history, to be able to tell stories of what happened before a lot of these kids were born and really expose them to the culture," he says. "A lot of them don't know a lot about the history of hip-hop or street art. They're making art in the moment. I thrive on reminding people about the journey, and I'm still in love with what I do."
And Adams loves to talk about that history, and not just because he had such a great time. He likens his time at Def Jam to being part of a Motown review, bursting with chaos and creativity.
"We were all starting out at ground zero, and everybody had a dream," he says. "Everybody wanted to make art and have fun. I knew that what we were doing was something unique and very special. But that doesn't mean that I thought it was going to last forever."
Adams is still amazed by the fact that the kind of art he painted on buildings is now celebrated, hanging in galleries and museums. "If I had known, I would have saved every piece I made and every piece my friends made," he says.