Public Art Spotlight: Rob "Problak" Gibbs

2022 Newell Flather Award for Leadership in Public Art

Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Jeffrey Filiault

I had the privilege of sitting down and getting to listen to insight from this year's four Newell Flather Leadership in Public Art Awardees. As Rob Gibbs reflects on how he developed into the leader he is today and the lineages he is a part of, stories spill out from him that are as vivid as his murals. I hope you enjoy a closer listen to my conversation with Rob.

New England Foundation for the Arts · Public Art Spotlight: Rob "Problak" Gibbs


Kamaria Carrington (KC): So, I'm excited to be here with Rob Gibbs, artist, winner of this year's Newell Flather Award for Leadership in Public Art. But just to get started, what do you want us to know about you as a person? Not the résumé, you as a person. What has shaped your understanding of what public art is or what it can be and who shaped your leadership style?

Rob Gibbs (RG): Very loaded question. And thank you for starting us off with that. It's wild. What I would want people to know about me is kind of, if you know me, it's self-explanatory. I feel like a big brother to a whole lot of people, best friend to most. I'm a very approachable guy. Other than when you see me off grip, I'm not a security guard. I'm not your neighborhood pusher. It is just a lot of things that I want people to know that I'm from an era and that era that I represent speaks through just about everything that I do, from the clothes that I wear, to my vernacular, or even on down to the work that you see me produce.

I want folks to know that growing up in Boston, there's a whole lot of history that I carry with me. I'm not wearing it wrong. I'm not wearing it bad. And when I go to other cities, people know about this version of Black Boston. They be like, "Yo, you mean like where New Edition is from?" They'll say Roxbury, Massachusetts versus Boston, Massachusetts. And it's so wild because I feel like the city is just grand and big. But I'm from an era where the Orange Line ran above ground and we were outside.

So, who I am is a reflection of my parents. I am a reflection of my family, my upbringing. And then that practice that we've had in our families plays out in the friends that I have that are family members now. You know what I mean? So, if anybody is someone that I call a friend or fam, it's at least a 10-year minimum that we've known each other. And I know a lot of people. Five years is like five days.

A mural of two young folks back to back; their hair intersects and one of them is a silhouette with a galaxy where they would be.
courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs

If there's anything that people probably would want to know about or don't know about me that you can't read on the résumé right now is that I am a proud father because that's the next journey in this chapter. I grew up with my old man and now I get to see what version of a father I'mma be to my little one, because I know how my dad was with me. I know how my mother was with me and my brother. And I'm looking forward to this journey with my daughter.

Where like my leadership style, because in my family, especially on my dad's side, there are individuals who are very notarized in the community. My cousin, who we were raised as brothers, he goes by the name of a Man because he's always been a grown man when he was little. But he has an MC name by the name of Man Terror. Just the respect and journey that he's always had, where when there'd be a sleepover at his house or at our grandmothers, the things of that nature, we've all known Man to have the ideas, the charisma, and just like the natural leadership to just kind of like, he's the cool guy. And so I was like, "Whoa, I'm close to Man. So I got to be just as cool. But I have to be my own type of cool."

And we had our Uncle Troy where a lot of people know this strong personality in the neighborhood. So, I feel like my leadership style is definitely a reflection of my family. My dad cool with anybody he came across with. I see how he plays out like on my mother's side of the family. Her relatives, they're like best friends.

So it's kind of weird when you be like, "Yo, yeah. You know what? This is my family." But you're like, "Oh shit." You get older and you know there's two different sides of the family. But then you see how influential and strong your dad plays on my mother's side of the family, where he's the dude that everybody's looking forward to or asking where he is at.

He's got people laughing. He'll have you laughing at a funeral. And then I have friends that take well to my dad and then young dudes that... Not even young dudes. Guys that are my age that work with my father, because he is a foreman to some contractors and shit. He kicks it with those guys so hard, so heavy. He would talk about me to them and they think he's like making up a story. And so, I would show up and they'd be like, "Yo, Rob, what's up, man? What's up, Black? What are you doing around here?" I'm like, "Yo, I came to see my dad." And they're like, "Your dad?" And then they put it together and then their brains explode because they're like, "Yo, we're friends now. That's your father? Oh!" And so that level of leadership just within my family alone, it was always strong.

There was no expectations of me to be leaders like them, but I think I had an expectation of myself to be different. The question was, how? In what way am I going to take off and still be proud member of my family and hold my own weight? So I think that's what definitely shaped my style of leadership was to be different. You know what I'm saying? Because whoever my cousin is and whoever my dad is, they're their own people. And then a lot of influence with them too being like so known by everybody is watching my mother because she's quiet.

My mother's very quiet, but very firm, very strong. And then there's other women in my family, like my auntie, my auntie Charmaigne, Man's mom. Our grandmother made sure we knew who we were. When we have the sleepovers at our house every Friday, I'm looking forward to going to my grandmother’s because that's when it's on and popping. All the rap songs you were practicing this week. There used to be a show called Putting on the Hits. We would act like we was on Putting on the Hits, lip syncing songs in the guest room. It was all about who could stay up the longest and not fall asleep first.

A Black man (Rob) in a backwards baseball cap and graphic tee hugs an older Black woman.
Photo of Rob Gibbs with his mother, Shirley Gibbs | courtesy of the artist

I think it was just that practice in the family, just being around my cousins and everything is who molded us to be who we are. And not to forget my grandfather, who was by the name of William King Hunt. That's my granddad, man. He challenged me, my cousin, everybody on our intellect all the time. If we had no homework because we finished, he'd give us like workbooks. And he always talked about your arithmetic. He got to make sure you know your arithmetic. Me and my cousin, we do math in our head the same exact way. And there's no explanation behind it because we can't explain it to nobody. It was just how we were taught. So, we see numbers different. We look at the world with a different view, with a different lens.

And it's because like Hunt, who would like, let's say, for instance, he picked me up from the bus stop after school and we sit in his car and he would ask me questions about my surroundings. He would tell me about how to be a Black man in the neighborhood. "Listen here, son. When you go to the store, make sure you always ask for a bag so they don't think you ever stole anything." Or, "When you eat potato chips, eat potato chips like..." Just all types of stuff, where he was always putting me on the gang because I spent the most time with him waiting until I got picked up by my moms and pops when they got off work.

But he would get in our heads and challenge our intellect, challenge us to be tough. I thank the world for that type of exposure to leadership, even though I didn't know what that was. I'm just little. I'm like, "All right, that's my grandmother. That's my uncle. That's my grandfather. That's my pops. That's my moms. These are my cousins." But when you look back at it in retrospect, that was the main ingredient to how I was about carrying myself.

Rob poses with his daughter sitting on his shoulders, in front of one of his murals.
photo courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs

Because if I was in the neighborhood house around Orchard Park, I was hanging out outside around Lenox Street, around my other friends. That's what kept me solid because I always knew who and what I was about. Because you can't get in trouble. Everybody knew your family. People are watching. Yeah.

So again, I'm from an era where like when we were eight years old, we were damn near grown. Because of how we were brought up in that day and age of independence. And there was wild stuff going on, but there was still like the eyes of the neighborhood that I guess gave parents the feel like it was just safe for your kid to be like, okay, he can walk down the street. Because if you know Corey Brown and them's grandmother seen us, she tells. She knows and she'd be like, "Yo, listen, I seen them boys over here and they all right." Somebody else's grandmother is checking you as well. So that real community feel, I don't know where it went nowadays. But I'm from a different era where everybody looked out for you.

KC: It sounds like you were really held in your family and there was a lot of gathering, a lot of expression, a lot of personality. People got to be themselves. And a lot of curiosity, a lot of like play, a lot of imagination. Y’all were getting to expand together. I can feel your excitement as you're talking about being excited for Friday night sleepovers. Everybody's getting together. It sounds like a party. My goodness.

RG: It was a straight party. Yeah.

KC: And that also, you shared a little bit about this, about Orchard Park and Lenox Street. But can you tell us more about like what your relationship is to Boston, like this city? And share a moment of community connection you experienced in your art making since you're doing things very publicly.

RG: Yeah. I'm a kid from two sets of projects, where I lived in one and I was raised in another. I lived down Lenox Street all my life, but was raised in Orchard Park. When you're young, you want your independence. Right? Because it was like, "Yo, I want to be my own person." In such a way that I didn't know what that was, but I knew I had to do something different because being down at Orchard Park was just amazing, where I learned how to play ball and was at the neighborhood house between Ma and Hunt keeping us together as a family. There was also just the titles where you are like, "Oh, that's Man's cousin. That's Troy's nephew." And I'm like, "Wait up, I'm meat." You know what I'm saying? Meat, short for meat head. So, it's me, I'm Rob. You know what I'm saying?

So I was like, damn, I am my own person. But it wasn't anything bad. You just wanted to be different. And I wanted to explore more than between from Lenox Street to bumpy roads. It's called Shabbaz or Ziggler. Anything around those areas, I was like, this is my life, this is my makeup. But I know Boston is bigger than just me going between where I won't get in trouble or I couldn't hear my parents' voice or something like that.

A Black man, wearing all black, high fives a young Black girl, in a white beanie and all black clothes.
courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs

So when I started to hang out where I live at now, the challenges came. And when the challenges came, it was just like, "Well, we see you, but we don't know you." And I had to make my name just kind of known around Lenox Street with hanging on both sides where you had Camfield Gardens, Lenox Street apartments, and then Roxy homes. And between those three areas you got the top of Hammond, Lenox Street, North Hampton, Camden. You got this area where there's all these kids that are from different housing developments. We congregated in communal areas. And everybody was different looking.

But also, you just knew that there was something unique about you that came to be able to play with everybody like that. And so there was the middle of the project side on like between Camden and Lenox. And then there was the other side between Hammond and Lenox. So there were two different areas. But I had to walk through both to be able to go through Derby to get to Orchard Park. My walk, my to and from, from being young to getting older, I've always been a part of anything that happened in the neighborhoods.

I was becoming a person where I know I don't have to show out when I'm in Orchard Park because my family held value in that community and in that environment. Everybody knew who you were because of your relatives. Lenox Street I had no relatives over there until my Uncle Willie moved over there and my little cousin. Again, you know what I’m saying, it was about who you were. I've learned so much and gained so much more. I was more vocal around Lenox Street than I was in Orchard Park. In Orchard Park, I'm just quiet. I'm the kid that beat box or break dance or rap. My cousin is just all out.

Punishment was real for some cats. And like Ferb, he'll get grounded for something. And then he'll come outside with these damn drawings. And I'm like, "Yo, where the hell did that come from?" He was like, "I was grounded. I do this stuff." I was like, "Yo, out of your head?" He was like, "Yeah." And I was like, "Oh shit."

A mural of a fist (the fist is in black and white over a red and black print).
courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs

And I was like, that's kind of like what my grandfather was giving us a lot of like workbooks. And we were finishing them. He would then give us the funnies—the comics in the paper. And we would be like doing the what's it, the cryptoquotes, crossword puzzles and all that. And so when I'm busting those downs and I'm rocking a cryptoquote like a grown up, I start to copy the comics, the little funnies. And I was real good at looking at something and then copying it.

And so when I seen Damon and his drawings, I was like, "Man, I could do that." Because all I got to do is look at it. But I was always blown away because that shit would be coming out of his head. And so it took off from there where I was like, "Yo, what he does, I need to do it too." It was just another way to be independent, because we all played sports, we all wrestled in each other's hallways. All of us had unique things about us that gave us like the superpowers or the moves whenever it came time to play sports. But whenever Ferb would get to drawing on the cellar walls -- so there was the cellars and there was these walls -- he would draw everybody's characters. He would do caricatures of everybody on the wall. He would highlight our unique individual abilities. Like my hand's always been big, so he'd do a version of me with like long fingers or like I'm using my thumb as a spoon for a cereal bowl.

It was like you wanted to be bad without doing stuff that you could get locked up behind or destroying your neighborhood or whatever. So, when I got into graffiti, I was like, "Oh, I can do this on the walls and nobody will know? I can put this stuff up and just say nothing and have other people?" I got turned on by it real fast.

Our grandmother used to always dub tapes, the VHS tapes for me and Man. When she had got us Beat Street, it was over. That movie...between that and my man Mo Harris, who is from Orchard Park as well, he was doing a lot of graffiti. He's doing people's names, little characters and all that. And when I seen that, I was like, "Damn, between him and Ferb, they were doing stuff that was helping people feel good." And I was like, "Yo, I like that feeling when you do something and then people are enjoying it because you did it."

Because I had to think about that a lot. I was like, "Yo, what really got me into this? And why?" Between the two neighborhoods I grew up in and the people I've been exposed to, they've definitely made me the person that I am. And then coming up as a teenager, it was the pride of being able to walk around your neighborhood, not be scared of your own people. And then starting to meet brothers and sisters from different parts of Boston. And when I say different parts of Boston, I mean something that's as close as like Dorchester, Mattapan. Or Mattapan was far.

KC: I was about to say.

RG: Mattapan was very far. And this is on the strength of us walking around on foot. So over there in Jamaica Plain, like any places where I physically couldn't go because of the neighborhoods I was from and just the rivalry in those neighborhoods, me doing graffiti was my passport. It was the one thing that gave me sanction to be in every other neighborhood meeting other kids that were like me and we were speaking this new language. So whatever the street shit was, we kept that to keep composure, respect to know how to carry ourselves, be street smart. But the graph part is what we were like, "Yo, this is going to take us places. We're going to be all city. We're going to be this force in the city of Boston," just because of the type of artwork we were doing, man. Not knowing it was going to turn into what it is today.

A mural of a young Black boy, in a basketball uniform, blowing bubbles next to a collection of smaller images.
mural by Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Jessica Wong Camhi ​

KC: Yeah. And how did that feel doing your work at night and then in the daytime walking around and seeing your tags thrown up? I imagine that those are different experiences.

RG: It's different experiences because you get the rush doing it. I'm going to Artists for Humanity as a young person and I'm riding the bus to go downtown on the 49. But the side of that truck that I hit the night before is sitting pretty, as big as I can write it. And I'm riding downtown and I'm on the bus and I'm like, "Yeah, I did that." But I'm not telling nobody. I'm not showing off. I'm not taking pictures with it or nothing. I'm just like, "Yo, I did something that's right there and no one's touched it and it's stayed for a while." So it was like, okay, I was there. I was here.

And I was always trying to do it where it was existing at already versus trying to like claim space, because I felt like I needed to see if I can like hang. And then it started to change for me dramatically because there was a difference in going out tagging. Because the further or the more rural you wanted to go out, the more my skin is a problem. Being as far up north and being in Boston, I couldn't get caught in East Boston or Walden or any of those areas outside of where you're known for seeing us. I couldn't go out to the South Shore or the North Shore and get busy because—you know what I’m saying—I get stopped for just being Black out there. And that made me really realize like, "Yo, I guess there's a place where I can get better."

The permission was something that we had to go after a lot of, because now... And I think the most craziest story that I could share with you was when friends of mine that were painting in the area and a homeless guy who stayed over there, or should I say houseless. The houseless dude was over there on a regular basis peeping cash paint. And when dudes was done, he came up to them and he gave them like change he had. And we're like, "What are you doing that for?" And he was like, "Yo, you guys should be getting paid for what you do." Because it was just one of those things that like, yo, for a man who has this extreme of a lifestyle knows that there's value in the shit that we were doing off radar and in the cut. That was a moment right there where it was like, yo, we need to take this to a whole new place and the next level. And got with guys who've been doing it longer than we have that started to raise us and mentor us as well in the ‘graff community. So we had that luxury as well being in a crew.

KC: I was going to ask you who your mentors are or the leaders that most impacted you as a public artist.

RG: If you go back to the origin or the genesis, you know that me and my cousin, Man—Man Terror -- we just want to do this hip hop shot for real. We didn't know what was going to come of it. Our parents call it that raping, that hippity hop. Whatever it was, we knew we were going to do it because we were just good. If you're good at it, you're good at it. And we understood it. There's a brother by the name of like Mo Harris that the bug bit me. I got another brother by the name of George to play there that showed me my first bubble letter style because I was just copying it from things that I was seeing.

A predominantly purple mural with a setting sun next to some silhouettes.
courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs

You have Miss Harris, my middle school teacher, who gave me my first book with graffiti from around the world. It's called Aerosol Art. Bless Miss Harris's soul because she's seen us doing things. Mr. Leonard, he let us light the auditorium up at the King School. I came to him with a proposal and was like, "Yo, you should let us do the auditorium wall in the school." And it was Martin Luther King Jr Middle School. And he said, "Okay." We was like, "Oh shit."

KC: You didn't expect that?

RG: I didn't expect that. But he gave us a shot. We're in an auditorium with the Bose speaker playing like that's when D-Nice came up. "My name is D-Nice." We're playing that single on the Bose speaker. And I got number two pencils sketching on the wall Martin Luther King Jr Middle School. You don't know how many boxes of pencils I went through; how black my hands were? We were like, "Okay, now the sketch is on the wall." Because this is with no knowledge at all, yo. We were like, "How are we going to get to paint this?"

And we had a student teacher go buy some spray paint, Miss Atkinson. She went and bought us some spray paint. And then my man Ant, he's from Brookway, rest his soul, he was like, "Yo, I did this in the projects. I know how to do it." And then he got to like spraying them the outline. And we're all in there going crazy, gassing ourselves out. No masks. Nothing. We were just raw with it in that wall. We graduated with that wall painted like that from eighth grade. So just imagine getting your eighth grade diploma with the wall. I don't know who has pictures from back then, but I need to find that shit. The fly part about it was that we had such a strong sense of pride in everything that we were doing.

A large colorful mural on the outside of a building featuring a smiling young Black girl sitting on the shoulders of a smiling young Black boy
"Breathe Life 3" by Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Gabriel Ortiz

But then, you know, we got introduced to an artist by the name of Susan Rogerson, who started up the whole Artist for Humanity situation with us. And she was the adult that was cool enough to kick it with some teenage energy to have us in her studio to really take all this raw energy and focus it on something. So I got introduced to painting in the capacity of like making something that's finished. And being in her studio when we were younger, it really gave us a place and a space to kind of like cultivate and hone and sharpen that sword.

The level of exposure, practice and like situations we was getting into being in Artists for Humanity. It went from a very small crew of six dudes to what it is right now. That type of exposure, and I would say mentorship, just on how to be with each other and take care of each other as peers, if not like people that we look up to, that's a very large part of my life that helped the work make sense because the opportunities that other young artists that were getting from just being around us.

We already had the street cred on lock, but it was about having a space where you can hone and foster that energy. It was just now we were getting people from everywhere. That stranger on the train that you were sitting across the seat from is probably in the studio with you now. Broadening in our exposure to the disciplines by creating opportunities and spaces that other artists is willing to donate their time and show us photography, teach us about composition and things of that nature.

I'm self-taught, but I've been around a lot of people who've been doing it as a part of their life. So that's where the real lesson was. Because I felt like if I was going to school, I would want to go to school for something different to protect what I love to do. I was like, "Yo, I want to be able to draw and not be told how or what." But from somebody that isn't doing the same thing or not good. And that's the one thing I clicked on real quick about school. I was like, "Yo, these teachers, man, are they good? Are they ill or what?" But you never know because there was that boundary between the student and the teacher. Outside of a school setting, there were people who were like the OGs and then the young and rambunctious. But what I didn't know was that these men and women are my mentors. I would never call them that. And that's just what they were doing. They were mentoring us.

So that's what made it natural for me to start mentoring as the person that I am, because I was always being mentored. It didn't matter what it was I was trying to do. I didn't know that that's what was happening. Even there's mentorship between me and my cousin, or my peers. So when you ask that question, it's so loaded, because I have stories to tell that connect all those dots.

But it's even to the point where like, let's say my peers who brought me up in the game with like Ferb, you got a brother that... I could tell you people that I met that it changed my life. I met a dude by the name of Deme5, Ricardo Gomez, he's one of the three dudes responsible lead artists on the Roxbury “Love” mural that went up. And he is a huge impact in my practice because he's the dopest dude we've experienced. I was like, "Yo, he's the wave!" You know what I’m saying? Everything about him made sense in his angle on how he viewed just the creative process. And then just what he embodied as a person who loves hip hop too, who loves anime. I didn't get into anime until I got around him. And I was like, "Shit, this cartoons? Movies? What?" So Deme5 is very instrumental in just the way that I take how serious I can lock into what's happening, on top of Ferb.

Deme and Ferb like them dudes. And then I got my man Jason, Swat, Jason Talbot. This is the clique. He's another guy that like it didn't matter what we were going through, there was always an ability to have the lifestyle and focus on what your craft is courtesy of Swat. He gave us the practice of like being in the dojo. You got to go into dojo and get sharp. And I was being in the studio and just having something to show in your black book.

A brick building is covered in a multimedia mural.
mural by Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Jessica Wong Camhi

There's another brother by the name of Kwest, K-W-E-S-T. I always thought it'd say “Key West,” but Kwest was that dude where like the more he started to rock with us and the more we started to hang around him, we got to see the type of artist he is outside of graffiti. But he was bringing both of the worlds together, where you could have soul in what you do, but you don't have to give up. One doesn't need to survive without the other. It's like put both of those worlds together, mash them up, make it happen.  And it was just lovely because these are the brothers that like show love.

There's another guy by the name of Zone, Timmy Allen. He was brave enough to corral all this young teenage energy in the city and form us into a crew to make things happen. And with Timmy, there was brothers like Womback, Click, B3. I can go on for days on how many older graffiti dudes who showed us love because we don't catch running around on the street a certain way.

That type of credibility held weight to when the older dudes just like, okay, we don't got to worry about them handling themselves because we see how... We were like the Wu-Tang Clan of Boston. When it came down to a skill set and showcasing like when people from New York and anywhere else would come up here, what do we have to show? What do we have to offer? It was on that type of sense. And then Timmy was always the dude that wanted us to stay sharp because he was like, "Yo, God forbid anybody want to battle y’all painting, what are you going to do?" What would we do?

And so that was an era, that was a time, that's when we was all around each other. That's when it was brand new and we're taking all these practices and principles with us. And then when you fast forward it to us being like young adults, grown men, I started to get onto other artists who were people that I've seen growing up and I didn't know that they were connected to these pieces.

And then there were other folks that were honoring this practice that I started to get into more when I linked up with one brother, Mexican dude by the name of Marka27 from Dallas, Texas. He going to the School of Museum of Fine Arts. He came up here and exposed what the next level is in doing something with a spray can, having letters, portraits, and characters. We call them productions. And there was a way to take these productions to a whole new level, where they were like masterpieces, like paintings almost on walls.

Mural of a little Black boy blowing into a video game cartridge and stars coming out of the other side.
Rob "Problak" Gibbs' "Breathe Life 1" | photo by Gabriel Ortiz

It was deeper than just putting up a style, character, and like some bubbles and shit on the background. It was about actually opening a portal when you put that first coat of paint on the wall. His practice with me was more like bootcamp. Because he was like, "All right, you this dude with these cats, but this is what I want to see you do." And we was doing that struggle painting, man. We were using the same can outline in the entire...We was doing stuff, we were making the most out of the little bit that we had. And I traveled for the first time doing this mural work outside of the city with him. So my first trip on the road and taking the graffiti to like as far as Canada, California, New York. Anywhere he lived and moved, I was there painting with him.

We clicked real hard because of just the way that we got down with each other. And I feel like the practice that I had with him turned me into what I'm doing right now. And it exposed me to getting with like Paul Goodnight, or my man Larry Pierce, Rob Stull. I can go on for days talking about the OGs, man. Gary Rickson, who's seen us painting, who did the “Africa is the Beginning”.

For us to get the GOAT and the attention of these older guys that like been here laying down the groundwork, Ekua Holmes, L’Merchie. There's people in the city that been doing this, doing this. And we got their attention now because of the way that we carefully laid this down and spoke to our souls. We got an older generation that's like now, okay, you all crossed this threshold. Let's now take care of the city. When I talk to Paul, he's always giving me just jewels, gems. I'm not even going to say words of wisdom. He's giving me jewelry every time I talk to him.

He's like, "Yo, listen, man, you have a gift. Once you have this gift, you have a responsibility. That responsibility is now to do what your God-given talent is giving you the ability to tell a story." He's like, "You are a storyteller." And he says, "Once you leave that on the wall, it's no longer yours. It's everybody's." He challenges me to be between like being involved versus being committed.

Rob works on a green lift. Next to him is a mural of a fist.
courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs ​

KC: I wanted to just say thank you for everything you shared with me so far. One of the moments that I keep hearing is that, one, you were surrounded by creativity, by art and artists, your friends, your family, your teachers. Folks noticed you, noticed you had a gift, as Paul said, and noticed that you are creative. There's so much inside of you. And also the invitation people gave you to do more, to like expand more, to listen to you when you asked if you could put a mural inside your school. And someone just said yes.  Folks saying yes and folks opening up whatever they had, space, knowledge, practice with you. You received a lot of generosity and it also makes sense why you're so generous. I feel like generosity is like a part of your life, your history, your story. I feel like it might be obvious right now, but I would like to hear in your own words why public art is important to you.

RG: Public art is very important to me because it is a document that could reflect who we are. There are so many layers -- it's super important because it helps educate who's coming into or up after us. If I had to break it down to something so simple, it's as basic as a landmark. Meet me by the such and such.

I've never understood the power of public art. I just knew like, when it made people feel good, I felt good. But in the same breath, you're not going to always do something that everybody likes. You're not going to do something that everybody rocks with. But I feel like it held more weight to me when people felt like they were looking at something that they could relate to. It's a mirror. Imagine you go somewhere and there's a mirror. The bigger the mirror sometimes, but you're like, "Yo, a’ight." You're checking yourself head to toe. You're like, "This is cool." When you see a reflection of yourself, you check that out for a second. You're never scouring from it. You're not hiding. So I feel like these murals that became mirrors were necessary in a time and in a city where like representation is everything. It is everything.

I didn't know how important any of the murals that any of us did until I started to see how the kids were interacting with it. To know that like, yo, there's somebody that lives here that made this who looks just like you, who came up with the same curiosities. Or like, this is our neighborhood. This is what we're investing in. This is how we take care. This is one way to take care of what we're doing. It doesn't necessarily have to be with like walking around with a garbage bag or picking up trash when you see it.

Next to a brick building with a galaxy mural, Rob looks right with his face obscured by his hat.
Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Jeffrey Filiault

It's about just kind of enlightening somebody's moment. So when I started seeing kids who were in front of the walls that I was doing, and they were like, it was their bus stop. It was their bus stop. But you see them with their little phones out and they posing like the kids in the mural and taking pictures and shit. And I was like, "Yo, this is crazy that this is happening." Because now from being conscious and consistent, it is now a part of a curriculum where people are learning. You have an ability to tell the story. They always say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what words are you going to use to describe that picture? Well, just imagine if I had more than one picture or I had an entire photo album, then we got a lot of stories to tell.

It's not until you connect with who's done it before you and the reason that you pick up that ball and you choose to run with it. No different than when I wanted to hang out down Lenox Street versus Orchard Park, because I wanted to do something different. This is to that same capacity where it was like, yo, I live in a city. I go to other places and I got to convince people that there's Black people in Boston. So I was like, "Yo, let me just take care of home real quick. So when they come here, they know we're here."

And that responsibility just, it was nascent. It was natural. It was like, yo, when you come to the crib, I want you to know that we're here. I want you to know that when you go down Dudley or Nubian Square now, this is where you can get the one, two, threes. Don't have me talk about where I live at like it was some fairytale or something like that. It's got to be a reality. And it's been a blessing to even have done what we did in Grove Hall because it's touching people as far as Logan Airport that are coming into the terminal to be like, "Come here. This type of work exists here." Now there's like wayfinding that connects people to what some of the fabric that makes the city.

So public art is important because of the type of representation that's involved in it, the level of healing that goes on with artwork that we don't take into consideration at any given time. There's a level of healing that happens when people are seeing that type of representation. The piece of artwork that's intrinsic or speaks to a community versus a billboard that's advertising something to them. We got to equalize those things. And I feel like when you have large public spaces that reflect the people or just the culture that exists in it, like I go to every other city and it feels warm. I want that same level of temperature this far up north. Even though our winters are long, I want you to feel like the homegrown is here.

Or not to say that everybody that's here has that intention, but imagine you want to come and add onto what the public art is already doing. Then there should be some type of standard. There should be some type of bar. You should know like, okay, I'm coming into this. How do I add on to this experience? And how do I represent in some way, shape, form, or capacity? Because I know if I go to Philly, I can't just go there as an artist or a muralist. I don't even have to go there with the inspiration to want to do something or add on and contribute. I just want to experience it. What is the city telling me? What am I listening to when I look at these walls?

Forklifts in front of an in-progress mural of a young Black boy posing in front of a boombox with a purple cassette tape inside it.
Rob "Problak" Gibbs in progress "Breathe Life Together" | courtesy of Rob "Problak" Gibbs; attend the Block Party celebration rescheduled for June 25, 2022

And so I feel like that's what's so important about what's happening with public art in the city of Boston, because it's locking in these stories and these messages that we have that are raising our children, that are speaking to an era that we're from. It's healing because of that vibe that you feel when you're looking at it. And it's educating folks on how to appreciate that level of creativity so that we can go in like any format, any form, and know how to enjoy it. Kids don't go to the museums because they don't know how to enjoy the work. But if you're used to seeing it, then you'll look for the relevant items that speak to you in a deeper setting or what galleries have the ability to host.

It's just time for us to know how to pass on those stories in different capacities. There's no dis to the technology or the modern stuff that's happening now, but let's create more ingredients to enhance that. I wouldn't mind a TikTok happening in front of one of my pieces. You know what I’m saying? Let's just keep the spirit high on it, man. We could save the smaller gallery spaces, the indoor stuff for like intimate conversations or things of that nature. We got to learn. We got to start somewhere. And why not be in public?

KC: I just want to thank you because it's obvious that you hold so much culture of the city of Boston and have been able to shine that culture on such a big scale. I appreciate it. And I appreciate you. I just can't wait to see what your kiddo is making. That's another reason why I'm so happy to highlight you as not only a public artist, but a leader and I think a leader who believes in planting those seeds. And that our future is still coming. We're still making that future and we're still making it together.

RG: To piggyback on what you're saying with that, man, you can't wait to see what my daughter creates. I can't wait for her to just experience this like it's normal. I'm like, “yo, this is cool.” But just imagine when our kids is like, "Yeah, that's supposed to be happening. It's supposed to be here." That's what I'm waiting on. Because she's going to be like, "Yeah, I dab in this. I dab in that." When it's that casual, I feel like, "Yes, we did what we were supposed to do, man."



Listen to or read interviews with each of our 2022 awardees about their own journeys in leadership and public art making: Christa BrownCatherine T Morris, and Marquis Victor.

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