Spray cans are his passport. Through graffiti, Rob “Problak” Gibbs travels beyond the boundaries and boxes that Blackness is often bound in. He makes connections. He makes his mark.
Today, his Afrofuturistic work colors massive walls in his Breathe Life murals on Blue Hill Avenue and on Tremont Street. He paints little Black boys and Black girls larger than life with love and power. In a world where Black children are brutalized by authorities in school, overly punished, and adultified, it’s important they see themselves cherished by their communities. It’s important they be heard.
“I never told my parents I was going to be an artist, I just lived it,” he says. “I can have a full dialogue with paint. That’s my style of art, to create engaging conversations.”
That’s what art gave Gibbs: a way to express himself and help others express themselves, too. His work is essential to our community, says Makeeba McCreary, chief of learning and community engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts. “His work represents the beauty, joy, integrity, and power that people of color in Roxbury offer to the rest of the city.” She calls Gibbs an “incredible talent.”
Gibbs and another Boston artist, Rob Stull, are collaborating on projects as part of the MFA’s 150th anniversary. In April, Gibbs will create a new Breathe Life mural at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. “I can’t think of a more important moment for the museum than to feature an artist who was raised only a few streets from 465 Huntington Avenue” — and probably never thought he’d be partnering with it, McCreary says. “You can imagine the young people from Lenox Street who will now find themselves in the museum because of Rob’s willingness to be our partner.”
As a kid, Gibbs started with graffiti pieces — elaborately structured letter art — the ultimate way to say I was here, see me, remember me in a world so ready to ignore and erase Black and brown people. He started with watching the hip-hop film Beat Street. With seeing his dad constantly doodling an image of a guy with an Afro. With hearing Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane in his Roxbury bedroom while smelling the pungent odor of ink as he practiced perfecting his letters with markers on paper.
He grew up in the Lenox Apartments and spent most of his time between there and Orchard Park projects at a time when neighborhood rivalries were real. Back then, you had to have friends look out for you while you tagged a wall. Even now, graffiti, when not commissioned, is potentially a felony with a three-year prison term. “For it to be a felony now blows my mind sometimes,” Gibbs says. Even when he was bombing — tagging or painting a series of surfaces in quick succession — he was pushing for a deeper artistic statement. “The question I always had in reference to when we were bombing was, ‘What else are you trying to say?’ ”
So much of his work, because of gentrification and development, is gone. For many artists, tagging their name isn’t so much ego as it is a claiming of space that is rapidly being taken from them. Painting murals is about marking memories and signs of life.
Graffiti let Gibbs live outside of the lines society draws around Black folk. Especially when he was a student at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dorchester. “Art gave me the outlet to meet other people doing graffiti who looked like me, and we were all at the same level discovering it, so we would come together and practice,” he says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were mentoring each other.”
One of the friends he made was Jason Talbot. He and Gibbs made the city’s street art their gallery.
“Rob had a passion for the art form and a mental catalog of all the fly graffiti in the city,” Talbot says. “We would dream about one day holding a spray can and trying it out ourselves. We wanted to do that too, to give the city that kind of soul, an essence that radiates from the buildings.”
Gibbs’s childhood dreams have come true: He made the walls come alive. His most recent mural, 2019’s Breathe Life 3, commissioned by the nonprofit Now+There with The Community Builders and the People’s Baptist Church, features a radiant little Black girl on the shoulders of her brother. When you view it in real life or through your smartphone using the Artivive app, both characters animate the American Sign Language symbols for “breathe life.”
“The power of public art is that it challenges our established cultural narratives,” says Kate Gilbert, executive director of Now+There. “I think people can see that in his work. You see it in the smiling, happy brother and sister, you can feel that pride he has for his neighborhood of Roxbury.”
The Breathe Life murals in Dorchester and Roxbury, along with Gibbs’s work at Madison Park and Underground at Ink Block, all celebrate Blackness. His graffiti name is Problak, inspired by pro-blackness, and is known across the city. Gilbert calls him a pillar of the graffiti and mural art communities, and says his work brings to communities “Black and brown bodies not represented in Boston artwork.”
People outside of Boston often think of it as a white, racist town. Gibbs says there is more to this city than that.
“I want people to feel smart when they look at my work,” he says. “People move from Boston and shame the city. But everywhere I’ve been, I put down the Boston flag. I’m from Boston. I’m from Black Boston, from Roxbury. It’s about opening these doors and having these conversations. The name Problak isn’t even mine anymore. It’s all of ours.”
It’s the signature to all of his expressions, art he creates for Boston, period.
On a Thursday afternoon just after 3 o’clock, hundreds of students fill the studios at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Southie. The nonprofit provides paid arts opportunities and mentorship to students, most of them kids of color from Boston, painting, designing, sketching, and learning photography and other arts while hip-hop instrumentals play over the speakers. Art is everywhere, even on the chairs. The studio is a beautiful masterpiece of masterpieces.
Now, as cofounder and paint studio director, Gibbs helps teens cultivate their own artistic languages, too.
Fabiola Lara, 26, used to be one of these kids. Before she became an interior architect, before she graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology, she was a Boston Arts Academy freshman coming to Artists for Humanity after class. Gibbs was her mentor all four years of high school.
“He’s always reminded me to be true to myself no matter what circumstances life throws at me,” Lara says. “He taught me to be compassionate about whatever I create, to be outspoken when necessary, and it was awesome working with him because of his work ethic. We never rushed. We took whatever time we needed until we felt good about what we were going to turn in to a client.”
He’s serious about the craft, but there’s also a sense of patience, an ease he brings to the culture of creating to everyone around him.
Gibbs sits next to his desk, dapping up students and complimenting their art. “I always felt like whatever I did needed to contribute to what we do as people,” he says. “Exposing teenagers to this creative world and helping them learn discipline and get opportunities? Everything I’ve been through on my journey led me to right here.”
Brennan Commisso, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School sophomore, is working on a city landscape. He’s been an Artists for Humanity painter for three years. Gibbs was his first mentor.
“The first thing he said to me, is, ‘We’re going to get on a wall together,’ ” Commisso says. “Before he even knew my name, his goal was to push me further. He brought me on murals in the Harbor Islands and skyscrapers and things I would not be able to experience without him.”
Commisso says Gibbs has helped him grow both as an artist and as a person.
Gibbs has made that journey, too, growing from a student to a professional artist to a mentor to a director. It is the poetry of Artists for Humanity, says Susan Rodgerson, the organization’s founding director. “Being part of an artistic community takes your work from being about yourself to being a part of the community, and Rob’s work is a perfect expression of what that means,” she says.
She’s known Gibbs since he was an eighth-grader at King Middle School selected for what would become her first art program for students. She was an artist, and wanted to collaboratively create artwork with kids and sell it to businesses. The students would make money while also building bridges into other parts of the city. “It was my subversive attempt to provide equity and voice back in 1990 or ’91,” she says.
Back then, King was the only school out of the dozens in Boston she called that said yes to her idea. Her plan was to work with a different group of eighth-graders each year. But that first collective, a handful of students that also included Jason Talbot, was so special they stayed together. “They were just amazing and incredibly committed to the process,” she says. “They were all so compelling, and I was way more interested in what they had to say than my own work.”
So instead of one project, they kept going. Even in the summers, the kids would ask her if she had work for them to do. They would create art out of her South End studio and she would sell it to banks and law offices. New projects kept coming. They even air-brushed T-shirts for students at Harvard Business School. And by the time they graduated high school, Gibbs, Talbot, and the others were mentoring younger artists, too.
Gibbs, now 42, remembers it fondly, saying Rodgerson “exposed us to different artists that we knew nothing about. She let us paint what we wanted and it got displayed at Hard Rock Cafe and everything flourished into what it is today.”
The organization now provides paid arts apprenticeships to more than 325 Boston teens every year. In its 28-year history, Artists for Humanity has employed more than 5,000 young people, many of whom come back to mentor. The goal, says Talbot, who now directs special projects at Artists for Humanity, is to give young people the same experience that very first group of students had. “We did stuff in the arts with Susan that transformed our outlook of who we are and what our future was going to look like,” he says.
And their futures look continuously bright.
In February, Gibbs was honored at a Celtics game as a contributor to the community for his public art and his work with Artists for Humanity. For a proud Bostonian, having thousands of fans at TD Garden roar for him was surreal.
“Having my family there, my daughter, the ultimate collaborative piece of magic I have with my lady,” he says. “That alone is like putting up a mirror to myself and all that I’ve done. When people were cheering, the energy was a wave, because I stayed authentic to who I am and who I represent and it’s bigger than me. It’s a responsibility.”
Gibbs’s art is his way of breathing life into the city, of painting the Boston the world tries not to see.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.