In the 1980s, when Cey Adams was so tight with the Beastie Boys that he designed their album covers, chilling out with the bohemian trio became a priority. Def Jam Records' graphic designer would crash at Adam (MCA) Yauch's log cabin, or cannonball off the roof of Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz's house into the rapper's swimming pool, and then return to his job, where he defined the visual style of the hip-hop revolution in album covers for LL Cool J and Run-DMC.
But Adams grows humble when describing his first run-in with the rap pioneers in 1983, when the Boys spotted him loitering outside the famed New York nightclub Danceteria, searching for a familiar face to help him slip past the velvet ropes. This connection would lead to a gig illustrating the cover art of the Beastie Boys' 1983 single "Cooky Puss."
"I was all about saving face, and I knew I'd get rejected at the door, but then Adam [Horovitz] recognized me and said, 'Come in with us,' and that was that. Having graffiti cred goes a long way," Adams recalls, speaking by phone from his Brooklyn studio.
He reasons that Horovitz "admired" his graffiti work, which had gained a national audience thanks to the PBS hip-hop culture documentary "Style Wars." "The Beasties were very much like Our Gang, like Spanky and the Little Rascals, the same small Lower Manhattan crew," Adams says. "You meet these great people all the time. It was the same year I met [Def Jam co-founder] Russell Simmons. These aren't light-bulb moments, because as a freelancer, everybody is a potential client, so you don't feel like the amazing moments would be life-altering."
But they were. This month, Adams' influence on the growth of hip-hop and graffiti through his Def Jam album covers, logos and billboard campaigns will be felt all over Fort Lauderdale and the annual graffiti and underground-art show "RedEye," which opens Friday, July 10, at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale and includes a party on July 25. Curator Allan Baldwin calls this year's edition a "celebration of street art and its 30-year evolution," which made Adams a "natural attraction" to highlight the show's 223 works by local artists.
"When [ArtServe] asked me what I wanted to do for 'RedEye,' I said, 'Well, I happen to know a guy, and, well, he happens to know Banksy,' not that he would ever admit that," Baldwin says. "Cey was the creative force of New York at a time when it was a gritty place, showing up to parties with his friends [Jean-Michel] Basquiat and Keith Haring and Warhol. But he's an example of an evolved graffiti artist. Yes, he started spraying in bubble letters and wild style, but then he went into corporate, and focused on branding."
Near the entrance of "RedEye" is Adams' traveling exhibit "Trusted Brands," a collection of 2014 paintings depicting the corporate logos of his childhood (KFC, Coca-Cola), built from a collage of handmade fiber paper, books, newspapers and magazine pages. The series is less a political commentary on consumerism than a praise of pop-culture branding and typography, which held his admiration even while he designed logos and merch for hip-hop artists Redman, Mary J. Blige and Public Enemy.
"I'm a student of pop culture," Adams says. "I grew up idolizing these logos and images. I grew up playing with Hot Wheels, and Cap'n Crunch was a part of my balanced breakfast. But it's not as if I'm hypnotized and need to hover toward the golden arches. I'm not addicted to Pepsi."
Adams is billed for several "RedEye"-related events throughout July, including a new speakeasy-themed mural on the second-story balcony of Stache bar in Fort Lauderdale (July 17); a collaborative mural on the Urban League of Broward County building (July 27-28) with students from Dillard High School and Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. During the "RedEye" party, Adams will play mentor to 10 graffiti artists live-painting near the ArtServe parking lot.
Occupying the same hallway as Adams' "Trusted Brands" paintings is Tyler K. Smith's sculpture "Smartass," which Baldwin calls "an absolutely amazing" example of "street art's evolution." Built from painted cardboard, the 7-foot-tall piece depicts a robot balanced on one wheel. Human brains are fastened to its posterior with leatherlike straps.
Elsewhere is Nolan Haan's "Eat Your Heart Out, Marcel" on silk canvas, which re-creates a brick-wall graffiti tag and features a toilet seat, a reference to Marcel Duchamp's porcelain urinals. There are also paintings of hip-hop royalty Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z; Jay "Remote" Bellicchi's "Sprayskull" sculptures of transparent, plastic skulls filled with spray-paint bottle caps. Carol-Anne McFarlane's "Touch It, It's Magic" is an interactive series of life-size wood sculptures of men in silhouette. Toy wands bearing images of Disney princesses have been glued to the males' nether regions. Press a button on the toy, and the wand emits a fairy-dust sound effect.
"The Snow White button doesn't work, which is funny, because I can't wait to see people pressing the wand over and over," Baldwin says with a laugh. "You've got kitsch here. You've got pop art. You've got graffiti. Every piece in this show can be tied to the work of street-art pioneers like Cey."
The "RedEye" exhibit will be on view July 10 through Aug. 14 at ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. The "RedEye" party will run 6-10 p.m. Saturday, July 25. Admission to the party costs $10-$75. Call 954-462-8190 or go to ArtServe.org/RedEye.