“I grew up on Lenox Street, 69 B Lennox St., born and raised,” Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs tells me. “I was traveling between Lenox and Orchard Park housing projects.” He’d wait after school at his grandparents’ place at Orchard Park for his parents to pick him up and take him home. “Bobby is what they know me by around here, after my Dad. He’s Rob as well.”
The Lenox housing in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood is just around the corner from 808 Tremont St., at the corner of Camden Street, where Gibbs has been painting a mural with support from Kate Gilbert’s Boston-area public art producing nonprofit Now + There. “Breathe Life 3” depicts two African-American children, a boy lifting his little sister upon his shoulders.
The mural-in-progress is the third in the 42-year-old Boston artist’s series of “Breathe Life” murals. “The little boy that was on part one, he has a sister that’s on part two that he’s uplifting here,” Gibbs says.
His design is meant to evoke stained glass, “sacred geometry,” the red, black and green of Black nationalism, Afrofuturism, the hip hop he grew up on, and the covers of Miles Davis’s albums from his fusion period, like “Bitches Brew.” A free, public project celebration is scheduled at the mural for Wednesday, June 5, from 4 to 6 p.m.
“It’s always easy to highlight negative shit and everybody piles up on it,” Gibbs says. “Take a moment and stop and do something positive, breathe life into the situation.”
Graffiti caught Gibbs’s eye when he was a kid studying at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Lawrence Avenue in Dorchester. “I used to copy out of comic books, the comic strips, anything that had to do with video game characters and such, and I was incorporating letters in it.” He learned bubble lettering from his classmate and pal Jorge Cepeda. Gibbs would paint designs on girls’ jeans or books (“that’s how I was getting cool with them”). Then he convinced the school principal to allow him and friends to paint a mural in the school auditorium. “We graduated with it behind us on the stage,” he recalls with a smile.
“That’s the year the shit started,” Gibbs says. “We had this little crew. We were always involved in positive things around the school. … Anything we could do around the school to be the cool guys.”
Gibbs studied a book on aerosol art given to him by his middle school teacher Ms. Harris when Gibbs moved up to Madison Park High School in 1991. “That’s what taught me how to do graffiti. I was so hungry, looking for it.”
Gibbs adopted his artist name ProBlak. “I was finding my own sound. There was an artist called Paris and he had an album called ‘The Devil Made Me Do It.’ He said ‘pro Black’ so much that it sank into my subconscious,” Gibbs says. “I never say I picked the name. I said the name chose me. … Pro is for and Blak is my people.”
His best friend Damon Butler drew caricatures of the guys as superheroes on the walls of cellars and old buildings. “It bugged me out that he could do that out of his head,” Gibbs says. “He could do the characters and I could do the letters and then we could be a team.”
“We all practiced at the studio of Susan Rodgerson,” Gibbs says, on Thayer Street, in Boston’s South End, near the Pine Street Inn. The initial crew included Butler, Jason Talbot, Carlo Lewis, Chad Hill, Anthony Garcia, Tekeon Forman. “We were always there kind of honing our craft, honing our skills.”
It was the origin of what has grown into Artists For Humanity, the youth development nonprofit now located 100 West Second St. It offers teens paid work in art and design. “It was the cool afterschool studio job while I was in high school,” says Gibbs, who’s now paint studio director there. “We started this organization to give other kids opportunities. … It stressed the need for artists to walk the talk and give young people an opportunity they would never have under professional leadership, mentorship, apprenticeship, and that became our life work.”
Gibbs and friends would head out to paint “abandoned buildings, everything that was away from the street, dead end trestles, anywhere graffiti writers would do their thing.” They linked up with other graffiti writers and formed bigger crews, and eventually ALA, the African Latino Alliance of black and Latino graffiti artists from across the city. “We made sure we were putting up artwork that reflected us, that mattered,” Gibbs says.
Gibbs says he spent a year studying at Bunker Hill Community College aiming to transfer to Emerson College, but Emerson didn’t pan out. Instead he worked at the YMCA—everything from monitoring the gym to running the teen center, while learning community leadership—for five years before returning to work at Artists For Humanity.
The African Latino Alliance painted mural-scale pieces across Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and the South End. The handball court at Peters Park, near the Orange Line’s old Dover station, in the South End was “our wall of fame,” Gibbs says. It had been declared a legal graffiti spot in 1986 under Mayor Ray Flynn, as part of an anti-vandalism initiative. In 1990, Timmy “Zone” Allen spent three weeks painting “Revolution is Evolution” there, an elaborate composition including dinosaur and James Brown.
In the early 2000s, the Alliance organized annual “Doing It in the Park” hip hop celebrations featuring rappers, break dancing, and painting by competing graffiti crews invited from out of town. “The city never had anything like that before,” Gibbs told The Boston Globe in 2003. “Now they get to see people from other places, other countries, other parts of the city. People they probably see on the bus every day and didn’t know that they did it.”
For the 2002 event, he, Zone, Kwest, Deme5 and Marka27 painted a mural called “From the Pyramids to the Projects.” Inspired by poem by Boston writer Askia Toure, it showed a shining pharaoh’s head linking Africa and Boston. The Boston artists also traveled to other cities to paint walls.
During renovations of Peters Park by the city around 2007, Gibbs says, “They knocked it down and moved it 15 feet in. We fought to keep it as it was, because it was history.” City officials were at first resistant, but finally relented to African Latino Alliance painting a mural on the new wall. “We are not interested in participating for the new gentrification of Peters Park and the South End,” Victor “Marka27” Quinonez had written to the city. “We consider the old handball court wall the People’s Wall. We will continue to allow the people’s voice to be heard throughout the city of Boston through positive and uplifting murals without compromise.”
On the new wall, Gibbs, Quinonez, Deme5, Odesy and Bamboo2 painted “Soul Revival” in 2007, showing a great wave crashing over African Americans, including one at the center wrapped in an American flag. It was dedicated to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Gibbs, Quinonez and community organizations raised money for a new 2017 mural that Genaro “GoFive” Ortega, with some help from friends, was commissioned to paint there. It depicts a black woman, wrapped in an American flag, breaking free from shackles as pigeons carry the chains away.
Gibbs’s murals can be found at Madison Park High School, on the old Mississippi’s Restaurant on Terrace Street, at Underground at Ink Block under Route 93 in Boston’s South End.
His first “Breathe Life” mural went up in 2017 at the UCERM Empowerment Center at 324 Blue Hill Ave. at Lawrence Avenue, near his old middle school. Another in the series is planned for Cambridge’s Central Square. “Being Boston-raised, I wanted to pay respect and homage to areas that made me the artist I am today,” Gibbs said in 2017. “I wanted to ‘Breathe Life’ back into the neighborhood that helped me launch my gift into the universe.”
“There’s things that need to be properly documented, for us by us,” Gibbs tells me, “…to encourage other young brothers and sisters coming up. This is me giving back.”
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.