Last weekend, as Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs and his team worked on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy’s new mural in Dewey Square, a man with two young girls approached the artist.
“Did you paint that?” one of the girls asked. “I like it.”
The mural is a giant, mostly black-and-white depiction of the artist’s daughter, Bobbi Lauren, wearing a track suit in front of a 1980s-era boombox. It’s from a photo taken last year, when she was 3. The mural of the little Black girl, framed by the skyline and buoyed by greenery, is a welcoming beacon for anyone coming up Atlantic Avenue.
“Great work, brother,” said the man, nodding at the girl who spoke up. “It’s inspiring. She’s always drawing. That’s why we had to stop.”
“That’s what it’s about,” Gibbs said as they walked away. “They can feel that it’s somebody they know. It’s like looking in the mirror almost. And it’s a reflection of who you can be.”
The painting, titled “Breathe Life Together,” and made with acrylic and aerosol paints, is the ninth Greenway mural for Dewey Square, but Gibbs is the first artist born and raised in Boston to be commissioned, and the first Black man. He and his team, the GN Crew, have worked through May, and expect to be finished by June 21. A celebratory block party is planned for June 25.
Passersby have been taking note. “People are out here every day. They get to talk with the artists,” said Audrey Lopez, the Greenway’s director and curator of public art. “That’s something that hasn’t necessarily happened in the past with other murals, either because we’ve hired an outside artist company or the artist has only been here for three or four days.”
Last year, the Philadelphia nonprofit Monument Lab conducted an audit that determined that nationwide, public monuments overwhelmingly represent white men. The Greenway’s public art department is in the process of running its own equity review, Lopez said, “to inform where we go in the future and whose voices are represented here and whose visions.”
“It’s long overdue for a local Boston artist to be on this wall,” said Lopez, who started at the Greenway last September.
She tapped Gibbs, who grew up in Roxbury tagging walls with graffiti and is cofounder and paint studio director of the South Boston nonprofit Artists for Humanity, which teaches youths to be professional artists. His murals around the city rejoice in Blackness. The “Breathe Life” series features exuberant youths.
“He shows us what artists really can do for a city, not only in thinking of the city as a gallery, but also mentoring young people, showing us what it means to come up in a creative career, and how we can pursue really big dreams,” Lopez said.
The artist sees the Dewey Square tunnel vent building as the perfect site for another in the series. “This building’s actually breathing,” Gibbs said. “The city’s breathing.”
“Breathe Life Together” is an interactive title, Gibbs said as he looked at the portrait of his little girl. “I tell people, you can breathe life together, or you can say it in syllables, ‘to get her.’ ‘To get her’ is to understand her, and to have our children in the conversation going forward.”
While Gibbs has worked outside of Boston — notably at the BLKOUT Walls, a mural festival founded in Detroit — the GN Crew members, with whom he has worked for up to 30 years and who sometimes travel with him, were all born and raised here. He was surprised when Lopez approached him.
“This is a spot that’s highly sought after, but nobody honestly knows how to get involved because you get approached to paint this,” he said, “I know to get on this wall, it’s showtime.”
He sees the mural as an opportunity to show the world what Boston’s got.
“Damn, if they came finally to a point where they wanted a person from here, I was like, ‘What’s the best thing I can do to host?’” Gibbs said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? We’re going to make a home-cooked meal.’”
So he and his crew are welcoming people to their home city with a metaphorical feast — in paint. Bobbi Lauren is helping out.
“She’s helping daddy talk to the city and pretty much the rest of the world,” Gibbs said.
In the painting, the little girl squats.
“Imagine when she stands up. She’s as giant as every building that’s around here. That’s what I want young people to feel like,” Gibbs said. “Yo, you’re giants. You are the future. This city is yours.”