ITEM PHOTO BY SPENSER HASAK
Artist Cey Adams at work on his mural on Munroe Street on Saturday.
By MATT DEMIRS
Cey Adams is more than just another graffiti artist changing downtown Lynn as part of the Beyond Walls Mural Festival.
And if you like hip hop, you’ve probably even owned an album cover he’s designed.
The outlines of his design are sketched in bright pink letters: “I Feel Love,” at the MBTA entrance on Munroe Street and after starting to paint Friday morning, he’s felt just that.
Beginning graffiti in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Adams, who is from New York City, said he wanted to do something more. After learning graphic design and linking up with early names in the music industry like Russell Simmons, Adams became the founding creative director of Def Jam Recordings when the label was formed in 1984.
Def Jam Recordings, known as one of the more successful black-owned record labels, produced for artists including LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and more.
“I did posters, flyers, t-shirts, tour backdrops, advertisements in magazines, billboard campaigns, television spots,” Adams said. “If you name it and it was visual, I was doing it.”
As the company grew, so did Adams’ role, leading him to create the record’s in-house visual design firm, Drawing Board, with co-founder Steve Carr.
“The idea behind the name came with the saying if you make a mistake, you go back to the drawing board,” he said.
By working with different kinds of artists, Adams learned how to apply various styles of art to communicate a message or reflect a persona. An example of this, he said, would be when he designed Mary J. Blige’s debut record What’s the 411.
“It was learning how to not only do graphic design, but make it palatable for an R&B artist with a soft sensibility vs. a hip hop artist who is raw and gritty,” he said.
He said his design for downtown has similarities to the cover designed for Blige.
Most of his murals are centralized around the theme of music, he said. When he came to the Massachusetts’ Area, he learned LaDonna Adrian Gaines, best known as Donna Summer, was born just a few towns over, he said.
“I wanted to pay an homage to an artist from around here,” he said. “Summer’s had a bunch of songs with the title love so I just thought ‘I feel love’ was perfect because it’s a universal message.”
Adams didn’t know the wall he’s painting belonged to a church when he first chose his design, but said it really ended up being a perfect fit.
He has continued to do a lot of commercial work for brands such as Adidas and Nike, for example, after selling Drawing Board in the mid ’90s. He also works with museums and corporate institutions like The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., in addition to lecturing and educating young people on the history of hip-hop culture across the country.
“It’s important for young people to know who we are as a collective as it relates to hip hop,” he said. “The culture has gone global and it’s very easy for a 15-year-old to not know the origins.”
He provides this kind of work to give guidance since a mentor wasn’t something he had growing up as an artist.
Adams said his time in Lynn has been nothing short of amazing because of the people and their generosity.
“I can’t even begin to tell you. I travel a lot,” he said. “I haven’t had a reception like this in a long time. The whole town has been really encouraging, friendly and supportive.”
It makes him feel good because he remembers a time when graffiti wasn’t always accepted, he said.
“When people not only acknowledge what you are doing but they come and bring you food and water, and tell you how great this is that you are here,” he said. “That in a lot of ways is something you cannot put a price tag on.”
Matt Demirs can be reached at [email protected]