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At the Greenway, Rob 'ProBlak' Gibbs paints an ode to Boston

The likeness of the daughter of muralist Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs peers around the trees in Dewey Square in Gibbs’ work “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The likeness of the daughter of muralist Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs peers around the trees in Dewey Square in Gibbs’ work “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"I'm about $300 in for two gallons of paint," Rob "ProBlak" Gibbs says with a laugh. He unfolds a creased receipt from his pocket and reads it out loud. "For two gallons of Inca Gold."

It's a special, bright gilded gold but the color has become somewhat of a thorn in Gibbs' side as he finishes his massive new mural at the Rose Kennedy Greenway, titled "Breathe Life Together." "It has to stay active," he explains. "It's one of those things that if it sits still long enough, it starts to separate... so we have to constantly have someone stirring it." At this point, he's sprayed over the gilded area again and again to get it saturated to his satisfaction. "And I'm still not done," he jokes, pointing to the receipt.

Rob “ProblaK” Gibbs applies gold paint with a roller as he creates “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs applies gold paint with a roller as he creates “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The gold gleams in the top left portion of the mural, a halo of sorts around the head of the mural's subject — Gibbs' 4-year-old daughter. Gibbs based the mural on a portrait taken by photographer Gabriel Ortiz for her third birthday. In it, she crouches down, eyes level with the camera, dressed in a Kangol hat and Adidas tracksuit, flanked by a large boombox. The gold is absent in the photo but it was important for Gibbs to incorporate the color in the mural. "Whatever is dipped or mixed inside of it or whatever it touches is literally liquid gold," he says. "It may not have the value of the element, but [it has] the visible effect of it."

For Gibbs, the mural at the Rose Kennedy Greenway is a vastly different project from his other "Breathe Life" murals that enliven walls in Roxbury and Dorchester. "The Greenway is like the gateway to so much of Boston," Gibbs points out. Connecting several of Boston's major areas like South Station, the Seaport and the Financial District, the Greenway has featured massive murals and other art installations for years. But Gibbs is the first homegrown artist to be asked to create a mural for the Greenway. The milestone isn't lost on the seasoned muralist.

On a knuckle lift high in the air, Rob “ProblaK” Gibbs works on “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
On a knuckle lift high in the air, Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs works on “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"In my other murals, I used an off-white color called 'Patience' for the background," he says. He also previously included lots of celestial imagery with palettes inspired by space. But for this one, Gibbs wanted to use that specific Inca gold to signify an evolution in his work. "I'm tapping into, you know, a higher power. How can I speak to the rest of the world that travels to and from [the Greenway], you know, or through there or anybody that lives here?"

While the gold has caused Gibbs a lot of grief, its symbolism is important. His other murals have often featured Black children, a testament to his desire to represent Black youth and their communities in Boston's public art. However this time, it's his own daughter, not a composite character, that is the subject and it feels much more vulnerable than his other work. "This is what love feels and looks like," he says, looking down at his preliminary composites of the mural on his phone. "If you're a dad or mother or parent, you know what it takes to cultivate some type of... legacy and to have it live long for your children, your family, to grow off of."

Gibbs studied the building's strange composition — a blocky structure, topped on one side by the round belly of a half circle — to discern how and where he wanted to place elements of his mural. The tall rectangular silhouette was perfect for incorporating a very significant boombox. "That's the stereo out of my grandmother's house," Gibbs says. It's also present in the photo of his daughter. "That's what played the music when she was cleaning or we was... putting on the hits on Friday nights. That boombox was everything even to the point that like, it gave us hip-hop, you know what I mean?"

Muralist Rob “ProblaK” Gibbs standing on a scissor lift near the painted control knobs of a boombox in his work “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Muralist Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs standing on a scissor lift near the painted control knobs of a boombox in his work “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Hip-hop played a major part in not just Gibbs' work but the culture of Boston street art and graffiti that he grew up in. The two are inseparable, he says, and the Greenway mural pays homage to that. From the tracksuit his daughter is wearing, to her Kangol hat, to Raekwon's 'purple tape' in the stereo, all of it helps to tell a story about Black Boston. "A friend of mine told me it's the most Bostonian thing that Boston's ever done," Gibbs laughs. "Everybody knows I'm a Roxbury kid... and all of those elements you see in that mural, speaks to that and where and when I grew up."

Though this mural marks a stylistic departure from some of Gibbs' previous works, the heart of it is the same — to visually mark places in Boston as safe spaces for children like his daughter to thrive. "The children like her that come into this space, they got to know that this is theirs too," he points out. "We don't have time to worry about where we belong or where we don't belong. We just need to know how we're celebrated in a small city like Boston."

High above on a knuckle lift, Rob “ProblaK” Gibbs works on “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
High above on a knuckle lift, Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs works on “Breathe Life Together,” the next mural to be featured on the façade of the Dewey Square Tunnel Air Intake Structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gibbs is finishing up the final details of the mural like the bright green grass at the base and, of course, a few more coats of that Inca gold paint. But the impact of the mural is already apparent. There's rarely a day that goes by that Gibbs isn't stopped by a passerby, a community member or friend about the mural and its significance. For him, those random conversations with strangers and acquaintances are almost as important as the mural itself. He points out that the interactions are an art of sorts, in their own right.

"This mural represents the past, present and future, but it's actively getting people from those times together to speak, not just to me, but to each other," he says. "Now that? That's the real power and magic behind all of it."


The "Breathe Life Together" Block Party celebrating the unveiling of the mural will take place on Saturday, June 25, from 2-8 p.m. on the Greenway.

Related:

Arielle Gray Twitter Arts Engagement Producer
Arielle Gray is the arts engagement producer for WBUR

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