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James Perry in conversation with artist Rob ‘Problak’ Gibbs

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.
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"Breathe-Life-4-ToGetHer" by Rob 'Problak' Gibbs PHOTO: courtesy of the artist

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This is the 19th interview in a weekly series presenting highlights of conversations between leading Black visual artists in New England. In this week’s installment, artist James Perry talks to artist Rob “Problak” Gibbs. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

A Roxbury native, Rob Gibbs is a graffiti artist, muralist and organizer. Since 1991, he has transformed the cultural landscape of Boston through his art. His vision — to beautify the predominantly Black and brown communities of the city — is a driving force behind his artistic journey. Gibbs’ work has earned him numerous accolades, and his recent five-part “Breathe Life” mural series has received national acclaim.

“Breathe Life 3″ PHOTO: Courtesy of the artist

James Perry: Would you tell folks a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Rob Gibbs: I’m Rob Gibbs. I go by the artist name Problak. I consider myself a hip-hop artist because I grew up in the culture, with my origins being in graffiti. That’s the culture’s alphabet, so I had to master it. But a lot of people know me from my murals now. In a way, that body of artwork protects the culture I came up in. Folks are focusing on the murals. And what I do for graffiti still is a practice that keeps me sharp. It keeps me within the community.

Who are your biggest influences?

My daughter influences me. She’s been on the planet for six years. When she came out, I was the first person she looked at.

If I were to go back in time and talk about all my influences, growing up in that part of Roxbury — the “equator” between what they call Lower Roxbury and the South End — [I was] around Paul Goodnight, Dana Chandler, Gary Rickson and those guys.

“Untitled” by Sydney James, Max Sansing and Problak PHOTO: courtesy of the artist

As I got older and started to get more into graffiti, there was a handball court at Dover Park which had the likes of Zone, Click and Wombat. These are graffiti writers. And the rooftops that were on the Orange Line when it was elevated — that was when I had an understanding of art, because I recognized it.

Why do you use the mediums that you use?

I use spray paint because it gives me the ability to feel like I can do anything. It’s on a larger platform, and if you can manipulate the can to do something very small, that’s dope. But the larger you go, the more detail you can go into, and it really challenges me as a self-taught artist to make sure that my anatomy is straight and things of that nature.

I think my choice of using spray paint is in the same lane as oil paint because I’ve been told that I paint like an oil painter with spray paint. It’s such an uncontrolled substance, and I’m trying to master the looks and the styles with it. There’s always room for improvement.

A lot of younger kids, especially kids of color, have questions like, “How do I continue with the drive of creating?”

The idea behind continuing to create is to look first, then create. Have something to create about. Don’t burn yourself out on either end. It’s almost something that consumes you. It takes time. It’s nothing that happens overnight. Always make sure that you are observing life in a way that your sketchbook becomes a field journal — that you’re taking notes. You’re staring at things, mastering that translation and making sure that your eyes are always sharp.

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Problak and Marka27 PHOTO: courtesy of the artist

Stay involved and immersed. Don’t be in a little clique of friends. Jump in the pool, put yourself around great people. Get in an environment where you’re going to visit studios and talk to artists who are living this lifestyle. … Treat it like a job. If you’re going to go rock that 9 to 5, you have that discipline. The same thing translates into art.

How important are mentors and advocates?

I think Paul said it best: “Your mentors choose you.” And if you’re going to get into mentoring, you have to have benefited from being mentored. It’s not just about the craft, it’s about the lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with different types of mentorships. There’s always room to learn. You’re only as good as your last piece and the people you place yourself around. There’s quality in relationships.

There’s an incredible mural right now down on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and I think you know the person on that mural. Would you talk a little bit about that?

The Rose Kennedy Greenway is something as new as the ideas popping up around it. I look at that spot as a public gallery. This is where the financial district is, but it’s a part of the city that we grew up in, nonetheless.

“Breathe life 2” detail

There was all this conversation about how this space was “the face of Boston.” It’s one wall. So, I said, “You know what? On what people are calling the face of Boston, let me put something on that directs you to the heart and where we’re from.” I have this beautiful photo of my daughter. We [take] family photos, and every time she gets a year older I have her posing with this boom box. I have this mural series of her called “Breathe Life.” I asked, how can I put it within the context of this wall? It’s probably one of the biggest stages to stand on in this city as an artist, to speak to everybody. The mural is a definite sign telling people that Black people are in Boston, we grew up in the culture, and here’s a piece of our culture, where we got everything from the Adidas that are rocking down to this boom box, a family heirloom of mine.

There are all types of nuances in the mural. The biggest one, where you see [my daughter] standing in a patch of grass, was only to make sure she felt natural in that space. She’s crouching in this composition. So if she stood up, she’d be as big as all the buildings around her. That’s what I want our children to feel like. We’re just letting the little ones know that y’all are giants and this city is yours.


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