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Lower Roxbury stands in the midst of transformation and Tremont Street is the spine of it all. Traveling toward Boston, Tremont quickly becomes overcrowded with renovated brownstones and restaurants with bustling patios. In the other direction, bodegas nestle between housing projects and cars are always double parked in front of Roxbury staple, Slade’s. It’s an area demarcated by racial and wealth divides. It’s also where artist Rob “Problak” Gibbs is painting his latest mural, curated and commissioned by public art organization Now + There, that spans the side of 808 Tremont St.
“Breathe Life 3” is the third incarnation in Gibbs’ “Breathe Life” series and, like his other works, highlights black children. A girl, sporting two cosmic Afro puffs, sits jubilantly on the shoulders of an older boy. Both have wide and infectious smiles. Together, their hands read "Breathe Life" in American Sign Language. The children aren't based on actual people, but instead represent the vast possibilities of youth and innocence.
All of Gibbs' “Breathe Life” murals feature thematically linked imagery, including meticulously detailed Afros and the blacks and deep violets of outer space. Gibbs’ murals explode from brick and stone, transforming walls into celestial depictions featuring black youth. In street art, “you’re told that black is a color you should stay away from,” Gibbs said. “I'm using it in a different context. It's not the absence of space. It's to open up into a different universe.”
Gibbs grew up around the corner from the location of “Breathe Life 3.” This mural serves as a homecoming of sorts. “That church was a beacon of safety when I was younger,” he said, pointing across the street. The wall he’s spray painting directly faces the People’s Baptist Church, an African-American church founded in 1805.
“Never in a million years would I think I’d be tagging a wall near a church,” he said. “There are rules to tagging.” Ironically, the church had a say in whether or not Gibbs’ mural went up at 808 Tremont St. They approved Gibbs’ concept and the message behind it.
It seems fitting that this mural exists in a landscape that’s growing but simultaneously at war with itself. While Gibbs has a personal connection to the location, the pairing of site to artist was more serendipitous.
Now + There utilized 808 Tremont for a previous mural by Ann Lewis and contacted Gibbs to conceptualize a new piece of work. “We had no idea he literally grew up looking at this wall,” Now + There founder Kate Gilbert said. “But it seems perfect that it worked out this way.”
Back when Gibbs lived in Lower Roxbury, his pursuit of graffiti and wall art was (and sometimes still is) criminalized as “vandalism.” He recalls himself and his friends acting as “look-outs” for each other as they painted the walls of '80s and '90s-era Boston. “We would get run up by police just for being little black kids in this area of Boston,” Gibbs said. His mural now seems like a metaphoric, visual stamp. “The walls of buildings are our galleries,” he said. “It’s where our culture displays its art.”
When graffiti culture bloomed in Boston during the 1980s, local taggers emblazoned bold letters, phrases and symbols onto any surface they could find. The elevated Orange Line route that ran through Roxbury was a mecca for graffiti artists. However, tagging came at a price if caught by police. Vandalism was and is currently punishable by up to two years behind bars.
Boston's long and contentious relationship with street art and graffiti followed the city into modernity. In 2009, Boston police arrested graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic "Hope" image of Barack Obama, on his way to a party for his exhibit opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. In 2018, Boston police arrested three young graffiti artists and charged them with felonies. And in 2019, they arrested an artist tagging the side of the Boston Public Library.
In an ironic contrast, "sanctioned" street art, which includes graffiti, is increasingly ubiquitous in the city. It would be difficult to find an area in Boston that doesn’t boast a mural or two on the side of a building. Originally, this street art served as a transgressive way for artists to make their mark on a world determined to forget them. “We were actually trying to progress this art style that we recognized as our voice,” Gibbs said. “We didn’t see ourselves in museums or galleries. But we saw ourselves represented on the walls of our city.”
Gibbs recalls some of his earliest memories of street art being the mural on the side of Nubian Notions and Gary Rickson’s “Africa Is The Beginning” that spans the side of the Roxbury YMCA on Warren Street. These radical depictions of blackness and personal politics influenced his sense of self and his desire to pursue graffiti in earnest. “Always seeing it and being that young really influenced my subconscious,” he said. “Now, I'm an active participant in beautifying the neighborhood.”
In this way, Gibbs perpetuates the work of the artists who paved the path by transforming buildings and walls into their canvases. Gibbs’ murals aren’t really his. They’re for the communities who see themselves reflected in his depictions. He compares his work and the lineage of graffiti to hieroglyphics that tell communal stories. “I don’t really paint celebrities or well-known people,” Gibbs said of his work. “So when people see the murals, their brain still draws those connections, but to people in their own lives.”
As Gibbs continued the finishing touches on the mural, I spotted multiple pedestrians stop to stare. “Almost every day he’s out here, someone stops and smiles,” Gilbert said. “We need more art that reflects the many faces of Boston.”
Tasha Smith, a longtime resident of Lower Roxbury, was on her way to work when she caught a glimpse of the almost complete mural. For her, it evokes feelings of warmth. “It depicts joy,” she said, smiling. “I love seeing these black children smiling and happy ... with their natural hair ... I grew up with an older brother, so that’s what I’m reminded of.”
Smith’s reaction to “Breathe Life 3” is what Gibbs hopes his murals do for the community at large. “My murals are mirrors,” he said. “People don’t even have to know what the story is behind the artwork. But they're collaborating with it and they're interacting with it by making a piece of it, by making it a version that they can talk about using their own voice.”
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