'The Mural Master' tells story of Boston through eyes of Rob Gibbs

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Artist Problak Gibbs spray paints in eyebrows on his latest mural, "Breathe Life," on the side of 808 Tremont St. a three story building in Roxbury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Artist Problak Gibbs spray paints in eyebrows on his latest mural, "Breathe Life," on the side of 808 Tremont St. a three story building in Roxbury. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Robb Gibbs aka ProBlaK has been styling Boston's streets with murals since 1991. Through his art, the Roxbury native has told stories of hip hop, Black Bostonians and the city itself.

Now, the new documentary "The Mural Master" is out to tell Gibbs' story. It was screened at the Woods Hole Film Festival as part of the "Art in Many Forms" shorts program on July 29.

Gibbs, the film's director Andrew Eldridge and Boston University film lecturer Chris Hope joined WBUR's Carrie Jung on Radio Boston to talk about the production and what ProBlaK's art is telling viewers about Boston.

Interview Highlights

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

On what drove ProBlaK's evolution from a visual artist to a storyteller: 

Gibbs: "What drove that evolution is just my connection with the hip hop culture and the lessons that I've learned in it. I felt like any good emcee happened to be mastering the art of storytelling. And so if I were to mirror or to compliment things that I really like, I have to have that same level of presentation visually.

"And so I felt like if there was a line that an emcee rapped, or a word a DJ scratched, or a pose of a b-boy or b-girl, I had to be able to emulate that in my work."

On the story the artist wants to tell:

Gibbs: "I'm just trying to turn these murals into mirrors, so that people can see themselves and reflect on something that's very positive.

"There's so many distractions that we get on a regular basis that like if I took one aspect of time where people are paying attention to what I'm doing, what would I do with it? I'd rather share something positive so it can keep going, versus talk about things that have you thinking ill of a situation."

On what inspired a filmmaker to do a documentary on ProBlaK's art:

Eldridge: "It was the connection between mastering the craft — spending years and years doing street art and graffiti — then pairing that with a message and also giving back to the youth, trying to pass it on to another generation.

"Rob is just so generous with his time and his energy.  [He works with] Artists for Humanity, where he has that sort of next generation learning from him.

[The space at Artists for Humanity] is like a beehive. Creative energy is everywhere. And you know, Rob's there, people come up to him — you have access to this amazing muralist right here at your fingertips! And I felt that was truly inspiring, we got to do [the film.]"

On what makes this particular documentary stand out: 

Hope: "I love what Rob said earlier about murals being mirrors, and I think that murals — and art in general, including film, — can be a mirror. But even more so than that, for me, Rob's work is a window — the murals are a window into a different world that has limitless possibilities.

"When we think about authentic art and the definition of art, as opposed to entertainment, entertainment is there for what the audience wants, what the fan wants, whereas art is meant to challenge [and] transform. It's meant to change and to inspire. So Rob's work, I think, is really based on that principle of being a window of what the limitless possibilities are for underestimated communities in Boston. And that we can create the reality and manifest the reality that we are living in here in the city."

On how ProBlaK sees the legacy of his work:

Gibbs: "I would like to think that I have an answer. if I had to put it in plain English, it's like my love letter to the city, when I'm doing these murals and different versions of them. I created a song called "Breathe Life" [and] each mural is a verse in that song. So when we can keep the song going, it's going to never end and people are going to have that gift that I've been preparing pretty much my whole life to give."

On the director's main takeaway from the documentary:

Eldridge: "One of the things that really resonated with me with the film was having a platform for Rob where he was able to talk about his evolution. He says a line there where he evolved 'from a guy who was doing dope stuff to a storyteller.' (...) I look at his evolution and I see also in a parallel way the evolution of the city.

"This week we have the NAACP National Conference and it's taken 40 years to get get it back here. At the time [of the last conference,] in 1983 you had busing. But now, I can say 40 years later, things have changed or are changing. Things feel and look very different although there's still work to be done."

This segment aired on July 28, 2023.

Khari Thompson Producer, Radio Boston
Khari Thompson is a producer for Radio Boston.


Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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