Rob Stull is a local illustrator, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, and currently serves as an artist-in-residence at the MFA. As a co-creator of “The Mural Project” with muralist Rob “Problak” Gibbs, Stull shares his experience working with the MFA, how hip-hop shaped his work and life, and his process for creating visual responses to “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation.” He also explains why his exhibition series “The Next Step” was so groundbreaking.
As local artists-in-residence at the MFA, how do you and Gibbs plan to use the Museum’s resources to benefit your work, the Museum, and the community?
I’m a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, so the MFA has always been a resource for me, especially in my art school years. To be an MFA artist-in-residence along with Rob “Problak” Gibbs is a tremendous honor. In many ways, it solidifies years of hard work and sacrifice. I feel like my partnership with the MFA, and my connection to the exhibition “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” benefits the Museum and myself immensely. I was born here. I work here. I teach here. This is home base. I’m also a child of hip-hop’s first generation. Hip-hop culture played a major role in shaping my character as a visual artist. Problak and I are part of the cultural landscape of the city. Not just through our art, but also in our dedication and commitment to giving back and teaching the youth. To be recognized by the MFA in this manner is very significant.
What was your process for creating the visual responses to “Writing the Future”? How would you describe the influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, and Rammellzee on modern aerosol art?
The process was very cerebral for me. As a child, I was always fascinated with New York City. When I discovered hip-hop, it completely consumed me. I still have old clippings from New York newspapers about legendary art shows in the ’80s at places like the Fun Gallery and Fashion Moda. My introduction to movies like Wild Style and Style Wars, and to books like Subway Art by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, were defining moments that changed my life. So I was already well aware of these artists and their individual contributions to the culture. At the start of this project, I immediately began to think of how I could capture them in homage, or tribute, form—my way of saying “thank you” for everything they represent. I produced illustrations of five artists: Basquiat, Futura, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, and Rammellzee. If time had allowed, I would have created one for all the artists in the exhibition. I also produced a sixth piece, of Problak, because I felt he deserved to be acknowledged as well. Each piece was rendered in a collage type of style. I wanted to visually convey what each artist meant to me and how much they inspired my generation—and the world.
How would you say the MFA has changed since your time at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, and where do you see it going in the future?
I would say the MFA has changed considerably since my art school days. The fact that Basquiat has never been showcased at the Museum before, and that now we get to enjoy his genius along with some of his iconic contemporaries, is a great example of how things have changed. It’s something I never thought I would see at the MFA. And the fact that I’m involved is mind blowing! The feedback in anticipation has been amazing, despite the COVID-19 reality we’re living through. I don’t see how this won’t open the door to the possibility of more incredible experiences and broader representation.
Since creating “The Next Step,” a traveling exhibition series highlighting the contributions of African Americans to comic book art and pop culture, you have curated several exhibitions across the country for more than a decade. How would you measure the success of “The Next Step” with regard to the next generation of comic book artists and illustrators?
“The Next Step” exhibition series was groundbreaking. The first in the series, “Sequential Art: The Next Step,” was in 1994, and it was the first time African American artists were featured together in a major exhibition about comic book art, bringing awareness to our presence in the industry. My intention in developing the series was to provide an opportunity for Black artists to showcase and promote themselves as individuals while simultaneously being part of a bigger picture. Our community consists of creators, artists, publishers, retailers, distributors, and fans. American comic book culture, like hip-hop, is global. Any artist working in this field is a contributor to the culture of the medium, whether we’re working on established characters like Spider-Man or producing our own creative properties. “The Next Step” is very dear to my heart. Amazing things have happened since then that continue to celebrate our collective presence. The platform is much larger now, and everyone is welcome. The doors are wide open.