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Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs is a visual artist and organizer who has transformed the cultural landscape of Boston through graffiti art since 1991.
Growing up in Roxbury during the Hip-Hop Golden Age, ProBlak saw the power of graffiti as a form of self expression. Graffiti became a tool for him, and others in his community, to chronicle and immortalize their culture and history. For ProBlak, graffiti acts as a contemporary form of hieroglyphs, a way to document and pay homage to underserved, underhead communities in the city. His vision- to beautify the predominantly black and brown communities of Boston- is a driving force behind his artistic practice.
Beyond artistic practice, ProBlak envisioned graffiti and hip-hop as avenues to reach and educate the youth of the city. In 1991, he co-founded Artists For Humanity, an arts non-profit that hires and teaches youth creative skills, ranging from painting to screen printing to 3-D model making. For the past 29 years, ProBlak has mentored and guided countless youth at AFH as they set sail on their artistic endeavors. He’s proud to continue his work as AFH’s Paint Studio Director.
With a strong focus on arts education, ProBlak has conducted mentoring workshops for Girls, Inc., The Boston Foundation, Boston Housing Authority, and Youth Build, Washington, DC. He served as a guest lecturer at Northeastern University for their “Foundations of Black Culture: Hip-Hop” course. He was the curator for BAMS Fest’s “Rep Your City” exhibition in 2019.
ProBlak is the recipient of a number of awards, including the 2006 Graffiti Artist of the Year award from the Mass Industry Committee and the Goodnight Initiative’s Civic Artist Award. In 2020, he was honored with the Hero Among Us award by the Celtics, Boston’s NBA team and he was featured in a segment on NBC. His work has been covered in publications like 90.9 WBUR, the Boston Art Review, Boston Magazine, the Bay State Banner and the Boston Globe.
Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me about yourself and how you first got started with art.
Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs: I’m Boston born and raised. I’m from Roxbury and I grew up between two neighborhoods: Orchard Park and Lenox Street. Lenox Street is where we had the apartment, but Orchard Park was where I grew up when my mom and pop were at work. They left me and my cousins at our grandmother and grandfather’s, that was like the headquarters. That’s where we went if we were getting dropped off to and from school until I was in the neighborhood programs like after school sports. The weekends were just like sleepovers, lip singing songs, you know, getting into this whole hip-hop thing.
As far as art goes, I was really into copying the comic strips. If we finished our homework, my grandfather gave us more work to do, because he felt like it wasn’t about how fast you did it, it was the amount of time that you took to do that body of work. I’d fill up the workbooks, so then he started giving us the comic pages, and in the corner there were the puzzles like the cryptoquotes. The cryptoquotes always blew my mind, like how I was able to depict things and pull them apart and rearrange them at a young age. But then the comic strips were really catching my eye. So on a scrap piece of paper, I would start copying the comic strips.
Then the older I got, the more I started hanging out where my home was at around Lenox Street. I got real cool with a guy who lived around the corner by the name of Damon Butler. He was the guy known for drawing — he would draw everybody as caricatures on the walls with markers and such, or he would do things out of his head that were just so amazing. I was turned on by that. So I was like, damn, I can do that. And that’s all it took. That right there. Because nobody knew I drew, I was just doing it as a pastime so I could go outside, so I could go play. It wasn’t until I started hanging around Damon that I realized I needed to try and figure out my niche with this thing. I took a strong interest in graffiti.
LG: So when do you think you first identified as an artist?
RG: I didn’t really consider myself an artist at first because I was little, bored, and just drawing on everything. I wasn’t introduced to art, it was just a pastime. It wasn’t until I started hanging around with other artists. We didn’t have art at my middle school, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. Susan Rodgerson (of Artists for Humanity) came to our middle school and did a project with us. When we asked her what else we could do, she invited us to her studio. I got grounded that summer, so I instantly missed out on the whole ordeal. The cool thing was that the moment I was let off punishment, I ran to her studio and instantly got involved in a whole bunch of stuff before my freshman year of school started. It wasn’t until I was in her studio with my buddies from middle school, hanging around artists, that I considered myself to be an artist.
I think the more I started to identify with being an artist, that’s when I became more connected to it. I originally wanted to be something that was a little more badass. *laughs* I was so turned out by graffiti and determined to be good at it, that’s how I evolved as an artist. I had that as my foundation. Then hanging around other guys who did a lot of figure drawing or caricatures and cartoons, to be around the best, I wanted to have that same type of recognition. But I didn’t really care to be known for it. I just wanted to do good work.
LG: Can you talk to me about your “Breathe Life” series?
RG: Yeah, the Breathe Life series is kind of wild. There was a Grove Hall initiative that went out, and there was a challenge to find a location and come up with an idea that would be in that location and represent well. The wall that was chosen happened to be a wall that was directly down the street from the middle school that I went to. I had never done a wall of that size and caliber. I didn’t know what I would put there, but there was a painting that I had done with a group show, and that painting was like the beginning of the story that I wanted to tell. I felt pretty confident about the graffiti that I did, but that wasn’t the only thing that I could do. When I was getting started in the mural festivals, who I was wasn’t identified for everybody. They wouldn’t know what I could do in collaborative pieces. What they didn’t understand was that I was in the process of learning.
There’s a brother that I’ve mentored, and we were both in the same group show, and I was like, “How about we do a collaborative piece? We’ll do a diptych that, when you put them together, they make one large piece, but separately they can work.” I told him about the whole Breathe Life concept and it blew his mind. So we did that small study, that diptych, at a group show in Lawrence at the Blochaus (shout out to those cats, man). So many people received that painting well, that I was like, if I did a different version of it on a larger scale, I wonder how that would play out.
The challenge was the building. The building has windows, it’s not a blank surface, so you have to strategically compose something on it. So when I came up with the composition to cut the building in half like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from corner to corner, that’s when I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna have the same idea that I had in the painting, disrupting the architecture.” So I’m celebrating both this old school building with the brick and mortar, and I’m opening up a world that’s probably never been displayed in that particular area of Boston.
I wanted to say something positive and I definitely wanted to pay homage to the middle school that I went to, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. I’d seen how people were receiving the whole Breathe Life wave, and this was out in Lawrence, not even here in Boston. I was like, I need to bring some of that here.
I try out different concepts outside the city because I feel like if I do things here I’m preaching to the choir. I try out things in different parts of the nation, if I can, because I want to see if it works. And then I bring it back home where it’s a lot more concentrated, the comfort is here, and there’s going to be something to celebrate. Sometimes you gotta leave here to challenge yourself and bring it back.
LG: Are there more murals planned for Breathe Life?
RG: Oh definitely. If I can do one a year for five years, then that’s five different parts of Boston I can have it sitting in. The series is so positive. And there’s so many different ways that you can say it, you can display it, and you can do it. I can support this campaign that’s on my heart, I feel like it’s a responsibility that I have. It’s just another way of giving back without standing on a soapbox. It’s kind of like I leave what I do in a place for people to enjoy.
If you notice, I haven’t really gotten into my stories about it because I think it’s more important that whoever is looking at it, their story adds on to it. The first thing is that it caught your attention. I have a whole explanation behind it, but I’ve gotten really interested in what people pull from seeing the murals. It’s crazy the stories I’ve been hearing.
LG: Something else I wanted to ask you about was Artists for Humanity. What are you doing there as the Director of the Paint Studio and Programming, and how did you get involved?
RG: So we started out in middle school, when the Executive Director invited us to her studio (the story I told you earlier). As time went on, we grew up into adults, with time, experiences, education, and training. I’ve grown from a participant to one of the directors. The paint studio happens to be one section that I make sure to pay close attention to and give my all to as a director. The title is really just cosmetic. If there was a title such as, “Listen, I’m here to get the job done,” then that’s what I’m there doing. I work closely with recruitment so that when we get teens who come through in all walks of life, I make sure that they get a warm welcome. I went from mentoring teenagers in the program to mentoring the mentors. A large percent of the mentors that are there were teens that were in my group that are now adults. So that’s a testimonial in itself where these guys and girls that run the studio were once participants in my group, so I’ve been around for that long.
I’ve had the luxury of watching the future happen over and over again there. There’s a series of special projects that we’ve accomplished over the years that I’ve been very instrumental on. But again, I don’t like the limelight, so you wouldn’t know, I just play the background and make sure that the team gets to shine. Everything at Artists for Humanity has just been evolving and growing. We’ve got creative jobs for creative youth, and became one of the largest teen employers in the city. It’s just a crazy ordeal.
It’s kind of wild now because of the whole COVID situation. What we have pride on, now we have to strategically and creatively figure out a way to keep that going. It’s the social distancing that we have to be very creative about. And then being very sincere about how we’re checking up on each other, especially the kids, because that type of inspiration can get just sucked right out of you because you don’t know what’s next. There’s no prediction, there was no preparation, it just happened. I think the humanity in the title Artists for Humanity is what we’ve got to really rise up to the occasion on right now, because our gifts have to document the times in a way where we’re bringing people out of a slump or a dark time or just a confused time. Because nobody knows what this is; this is like a snow storm with no snow.
Funding is also a thing, so we’ve got to make sure that the development team gets the support they need to allocate the funds. But a lot of cool things are happening right now where the world is stopping for us to take a minute to assess and recalibrate some of the things that we get caught up in doing. Sometimes you just get so caught up in making a living, you forget to make a life.
The Manifest Boston Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.