Growing up in Roxbury, Rob “Problak” Gibbs learned to paint through observation. Studying graffiti magazines and copying comic strips, he would "observe and absorb" graffiti artists in and around Orchard Park and Lenox Street. Learning from these “bigger, older guys,” artists like Zone, B3, Click, Wombat, and enthralled by international magazines like Aerosoul Art, Problak started drawing his own designs for graffiti murals around his own neighborhood. By the time he was first invited to paint on a wall in 1994, Problak was studying music as a student at Madison Park High School and working as an apprentice artist at Artists for Humanity, an organization he co-founded as a teen in 1991.
Today Problak is an accomplished graffiti artist and mentor as the Painting Studio Director for AfH. To him, graffiti is a contemporary form of hieroglyphics, a timeless way to connect to the world, and a way in which knowledge is shared. It’s a medium that allows him to mentor other young artists as he was mentored as a kid. “Zone took his time out with us to really put a fire under us,” remembers Problak, which in turn reminds me of his work as a teacher and mentor.
I spoke to Problak a few weeks ago to talk about his early work and the project he’s proposing with Now + There, Breathe Life 3. The latest in a long line of ambitious, dynamic artworks in and around Boston, Breathe Life 3 marks a homecoming of sorts for Problak. Proposed for 808 Tremont Street, this mural would be at the corner of Camden Street, not far from the exact location where he realized he could paint graffiti. Playing stickball with friends on the side of an abandoned building, Problak drew a big square for the pitcher to aim for. "If we had the nerve to draw a square," he says, explaining that if he could paint a square, he could paint a mural.
Problak's proposal goes before two City of Boston approval boards, the Landmarks Commission on May 7 at 5:30 pm and the Boston Art Commission on May 14. These meetings are open to the public, and if you've never attended one, they are an informative and exciting way to get to know City processes. Be part of the art by joining us at one or both of these meetings to show your support and help make Breathe Life 3 a go! More details on the meetings can be found here. Read on for more on the proposal as well as Problak's start, and don't forget to join us May 7 or 14!
LTH: Your work started with a square.
Problak: It started with a square, man. And me being turned on by movies like Beat Street. I had this strong need to want to do something that spoke to just the type of hip-hop I was listening to, and since I didn't want to rap per se, I felt like [painting] was my version. I was strongly influenced by looking through a publication called Aerosoul Art. I was looking at murals from around the world. So when I was introduced to that concept of how the world was speaking, I thought, they have street life problems in London? I saw that there’s a version of where we’re at, in a world outside of my own. So, I thought if I had an ability to contribute to it, especially with people around where I live, I would want to do it on this wall, and I want it to say “street life.”
LTH: So your goal for your mural was really to connect your neighborhood to the world beyond. What was the design of that mural?
Problak: I did the [Boston] skyline, a couple of characters; it said “street life,” stacked. And it was heavy with marker. The style definitely came from me looking into Aerosol Art and making sure that ... I said, “Here I am, trying to figure this out.” So I'm taking letter styles from pages out of Aerosol Art, because I’m self-taught, and I'm Frankensteining these letters that spell out "street life". I wanted it to read very clearly. [The mural] was me trying to have a page that would go inside of Aerosol Art.
LTH:Your proposal, a mural, Breathe Life, is the third in the series, right? What inspired the series and why do you keep coming back to this theme?
Problak: The series comes from the feeling that you can’t tell an entire story in one page of a book. It’s a narrative, a body of work that I feel like is going to be on-growing, and it should capture and highlight things that will speak to just about anybody who looks at it.
It's the same way that anybody knows a hip-hop song, one song that changed the landscape of culture or contributed to what people have a nostalgic connection to. I want to do something with that type of impact, but I know it can’t happen on one wall. So maybe it’s a series of walls that would lead up to a body of work that I can say, "Yo, I've done that. I did that piece. This is what it's about."
LTH: The proposed design for this installment of Breathe Life is ambitious, joyful, and positive: it’s composed of two kids, a girl on a boy’s shoulders, each smiling and saying “breathe life” in American Sign Language. What inspires this?
Problak: The need to place positive messaging in the community is just more than standing on a soapbox and yelling through a megaphone and whomever it hits, it hits. When I [first] did Breathe Life, it wasn’t what I had an original intention to do. It was just a calling. It just came from me wanting to talk to people and suggesting, instead of downplaying something, how about you breathe life into it?
LTH: You want to encourage people to look for harmony instead of discord?
Problak: Right. I wanted it to connect to a part of the culture that people could identify with, as being kids.
LTH: So when your proposal passes through Landmarks and is complete, what do you hope for all Bostonians to see in this next Breathe Life?
Problak: I hope you learn something new when you look at it. That is my overall goal, for you to take it in a positive light or just challenge yourself to look into it. Whether you took the time to go see it, you ran across it, you ran into it, or what have you, in the time that [the mural] temporarily exists in that space, I just want you to be able to live with it and have your own interpretation.
LTH: Finally, what would be your most perfect wall?
Problak: The most perfect wall I guess I could paint would be in a place where, if my daughter becomes an artist, she wants to paint with me. That would be the perfect wall to paint because it's me helping her discover her voice, if not put it on a platform.
This is next to the most perfect spot because it’s 360 [for me]. This is where it started, the neighborhood I came up in. This is where I came from. Even if nobody knows who I am, [the mural] will trigger them to ask, “Who’s this guy? He looks like one of us.”
And so the perfect wall? I think I'm on it, to be honest with you.