Rob “Problak” Gibbs honed his spray-painting skills as a teenager at Roxbury’s Madison Park Vocational High School (class of 1995). He used nearby corners to practice the curves, colors, and motifs that now dominate the murals he’s painted throughout Boston.
Years later, his new commission for the Museum of Fine Arts has brought Gibbs back to festoon the exterior walls of his alma mater.
“Breathe Life 2” is a towering, four-wall depiction of a young Black girl, the same girl who sits on the shoulders of her brother in “Breathe Life 3,” the Roxbury mural Gibbs completed last summer. (The original ”Breathe Life” depicts the boy alone and stands on Blue Hill Ave.) With the new mural, Gibbs pictures the girl blowing a large bubble — a trail of inspiring papers and books flies from her backpack, a clustered galaxy of stars and nebulae lives in her hair.
Because of its size and stature, the completed mural will be visible for miles, including from the nearby police station and Ruggles MBTA stop. It’ll also be a landmark Madison Park students pass each and every day — a reminder of Black joy, talent, and togetherness.
“The school is a goldmine because there are a whole lot of murals and graffiti there already,” said Gibbs, who previously painted a number of smaller works on the campus. “To do something of this size, scale, magnitude, visibility — it feels good.”
It should remind Black children and the community at large what they are capable of accomplishing, Gibbs said. “It’s my PSA without standing on a soapbox, It’s a reminder to breathe life into a situation because it’s so easy to focus on the negative things that are said. Instead of talking trash, why don’t you breathe life?”
The bubble represents the challenges that may lie ahead. “People want to touch it, they want to pop it,” Gibbs said.
The mural was commissioned in conjunction with the MFA’s “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” exhibition. After opening virtually on April 3, the show takes audiences through pieces from the post-1980s graffiti movement, including multiple works from Jean-Michel Basquiat himself. The online exhibition includes a walking tour of Boston street art, courtesy of a map crafted by Gibbs and fellow artist-in-resident Rob Stull. (Stull is responsible for the drawings that hang in the exhibition’s exit lobby as a tribute to its featured artists. The drawings will be ready to greet visitors when the museum reopens.)
MFA Chief of Learning and Community Engagement Makeeba McCreary said she immediately thought of Gibbs when the idea for a public art piece was conceived last summer. “I was so convinced he was someone who should be part of the MFA for this project,” she said. “It came together in a perfect way.”
Organizers scheduled the painting process for April, but it was delayed by COVID-19 and began instead on June 15. Gibbs estimates the mural will take another month to finish.
Of all the special projects planned for the museum’s 150th anniversary, Gibbs’s mural is the only one to survive. Others were slashed due to financial and logistical obstacles.
But Gibbs’s piece proved an important — and feasible — effort to salvage because of its community involvement and impact, McCreary said. What’s more, the finished product will live in the neighborhood brimming with people of color who often feel left out from museum culture.
Two roundtable discussions about the mural included Madison Park students and teenagers from Artists for Humanity, the nonprofit Gibbs cofounded in 1991. Boston-based Beyond MEASURE Productions also created a documentary for the MFA titled “Co-Sign,” detailing Gibbs’s and Stull’s artistic influences.
In the days ahead, residents can also go watch Gibbs work on the mural under the summer sun. He said he takes occasional breaks and speaks with passersby while adapting the mural to the moment, to what he is feeling and thinking. “I can’t give a percent on how much is done,” he said. “I let the wall tell me what’s next and then push it as far as I can go.”
McCreary said the mural will pay tribute to important storytellers and artists of color who went unacknowledged in their time — and ensure that the same doesn’t happen to Gibbs. “The Rob Gibbs of the world shouldn’t have to wait to be acknowledged by these institutions.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_