An exuberant Black girl in a green dress, emblazoned with lettering celebrating Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, and red stripes cascading into the ruffles, blows bubbles that surround her, as she’s suspended mid-air, her toes hovering above ground in high-top sneakers.
The nearly 40-foot-tall Breathe Life 2 mural spray-painted by artist Rob “Problak” Gibbs onto the functional brick walls of his alma mater, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, is a vital burst of hope, as our suffocating nation clamors for racial justice.
The concept for the mural was created in collaboration with students from Madison Park and Artists for Humanity, co-founded by Gibbs in 1991 to provide under-resourced teens with resources to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design. It’s an ambitious component of the community mural project co-led by artists-in-residence Gibbs and Rob Stull, devised as part of the 150th anniversary of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). It draws from the MFA’s upcoming Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation exhibition and was executed in partnership with the City of Boston.
“It feels good to know that graffiti is the archetype of something that’s being used as a tool,” said Gibbs, who promotes graffiti writing as an art form that “has its own energy and responsibility.”
“It is so powerful. When you have the ability to have a voice and you use that voice you evolve and grow and heal. In this time, writers and artists are more necessary than ever because we are able to get the message of anger, pain, and healing out with art,” Gibbs said. “We don’t have to wait. We just need a surface to share our voice.”
The Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, with protests and social activism pouring into streets throughout the United States and other parts of the world, after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died on Memorial Day when white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned his knee onto Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as three fellow officers watched.
Gibbs’ Breathe Life series emerged before Floyd eked out his last words “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times, transcripts show, as officers ignored his pleas to survive. Those words have become a battle cry among crowds calling for an end to rampant police brutality and systemic racism. Floyd wasn’t the first such Black victim of white police officers who cried out those words.
Artists have been reacting to the ongoing violence against Black and brown people, as they work in quarantine forced by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Graffiti offers a safe alternative to gallery space as the global art world scrambles to adapt to digital displays.
While Gibbs’ Breathe Life 2 is showcased in a space with personal context, it’s intended to engage a global audience.
“Most artists are forced into the corner of representing a singular ‘community’ but if you define community as the thing that you have in your heart, the thing that walks around with you, then the idea expands and becomes more real,” Gibbs said. “As an artist, my work Is representing and speaking for anyone who has a shared experience. Artists need to be acknowledged for having a personal practice that can span experiences that aren’t bound by a neighborhood or city. That’s how you find the like-minds in the room. I’m a Black man from Roxbury but my community is across the nation and the world.”
Stull, a comic book artist and graphic designer who has worked for Marvel and DC Comics, is creative director and illustrator for a comic book-style brochure that chronicles the project and maps out murals within walking distance of the MFA. Madison Park is about a mile from the MFA. The publication, available for free on mfa.org, is accompanied by Co-Sign, a documentary video created by Beyond MEASURE Productions that explores Gibbs’ and Stull’s influences and the core mission of graffiti art and its intrinsic ties to hip-hop culture.
Stull’s new series of black-and-white drawings, a visual response to Writing the Future, an homage to Basquiat, Futura, Lady Pink and Rammellzee, will go on view alongside the exhibition when the MFA can safely reopen, hopefully this autumn.
“I’ve evolved over my career in terms of taking fuller advantage of the times when I’m not having to respond to a client needing a particular message or brand conveyed in the final product,” said Gibbs. “Because that mandate is typically very ‘safe,’ now when I have a chance to say something with my work I feel like I need to make sure I don’t lose the moment to be serious.”
Gibbs said he’s always “had the need to get a message into and throughout my work.”
“I think this moment is allowing more people to see the message but I’ve always talked about where I come from and who I am and how I connect to a larger narrative. ‘Problak’ doesn’t even represent just me anymore. I feel like it’s such a shared story from my writing and art on a surface I’m able to convey so many different meanings, positions, express so many emotions,” Gibbs said. “Problem really belongs to everyone who experiences my work. I feel like there’s been a need for more of this led and executed by Black people. So I suppose in this moment I’m really satisfied that the Black Lives Movement and Black-made art can share a space.”
Gibbs said he’s “watched social media turn into an art gallery of sorts where people are recognized for their uniqueness and then there are individual styles that are trending.”
“This generation is willing to test a social media lane as a primary communication tool and it’s opened up the world to what the creative process is for a true graffiti writer. So now we are looking at architecture/buildings differently,” he said. “We are the competition to ad companies because we are able to take over a space. We don’t need a smooth surface or a commercial mandate to create a pretty picture. We are telling a story about our unrest and it can find its way anywhere and on any building or surface and be shared with the push of a button. The world can see how political we are.”
“Graffiti writers pride themselves on not being seen but having their work represented in some unexpected places (trains, fences, sides of buildings etc.) to the systems that suppress or oppress,” Gibbs added. “We are powerful. By the way, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t different kinds of writers. Some say something with their work and some don’t say anything. This is a time to be saying something.”