Trap Bob Talks Art, Faith, & Gucci Mane
DMV based visual illustrator, animator, and freelancer, Tenbeete Solomon AKA Trap Bob, has been creating some of the most unique pieces of art over the past couple of years. From murals to billboards, she’s proven time and time again that individuality brings out the best in our creative works. Having worked with the likes of Missy Elliot, receiving recognition from Beyonce, illustrating the Washington Post Magazine, and being the creative director of GIRLAAA, it’s safe to say she isn’t stopping anytime soon. Her work ranges from colorful portraits of people that inspire her to socio-political works of art that express her thoughts and values – all while keeping that abstract style of illustration that is the foundation of her art (plus I’m a fan of stars and aliens).
We got a chance to talk with Solomon about working through the pandemic, her inspirations, her love for Gucci Mane. Read below for more!
First, how was your 2020?
For me, it’s been very mixed up. Work-wise, it’s been great, I had a successful year. Being a mostly digital artist, my workload didn’t really change too much. Events and panels definitely disappeared but I’ve been lucky to do work through other mediums. Otherwise, it was a crazy year…the mental toll of trying to figure out even how to feel at a time like this. I’ve been focusing on positivity so I try to focus on what we’re blessed to have, and art keeps me grounded.
How did you first get into Art?
So both my parents moved from Addis, Ethiopia. My mom went into the medical field and my Dad is an artist himself. He did a lot of creative projects in LA, where I was born. I didn’t even think of being an artist until towards the end of college, but looking back I was kind of raised as an artist without being told. I was really into art in the 1st grade but I didn’t really feel supported and I think part of that was because of the teachers. No one pushed me into it. I graduated with a marketing degree which definitely helped me a lot as an artist because I got an understanding of how people think and take in content, which I was able to apply to my Art. However, I didn’t want to work for anybody, I felt like I was living a lie. Art made me feel like myself. I really sabotaged my whole old life to become an artist, and thankfully it all came together.
As a self-taught illustrator, what were some of the best things and challenges about learning on your own?
The best thing for me was having the freedom to explore without a direction. Having direction is good but I think it’s also good to try things out without it. I can almost tell when an artist has learned everything from a school or had formal training vs someone who found it for themselves. It’s not like one is better than the other but when I look at my work, I feel like it is exactly who I am. It was difficult for sure but because I love it so much, I’m always hungry to try new things. I like the challenge of figuring it out on my own. There are definitely times where it took me longer to learn things because I had to find out what I didn’t know to learn. There was a learning curve but I also got to create my own style this way.
What was your official first piece of art?
I’m not sure but the most distinct was an oil painting of the last supper but it was in an Ethiopian style. Ethiopian Christian Art is really my biggest influence growing up. We were in church for like six hours at a time. So I spent a lot of time just staring at art, and because we were never colonized, all the art was of black people. With these black depictions of biblical stores, I saw how they used these bold and bright colors and that just stuck with me. I’m not sure where that piece is now but that inspired me to keep going.
When I look at your art, two things always stick out to me: your use of outer space (stars, aliens, etc.) and Christian crosses. Does religion and the “unknown world” have an influence on your creativity?
Those two specific things ideas for me are the foundation that always exists. Friends come and go, Money comes and go, but for me faith is everything. Even my logo is a picture of me without eyes and I did that because for me I walk by faith, not by sight.
Space is just the most fascinating thing to me, it’s so unexplored. Even when I see people draw aliens, I just think it’s funny because we can only look at things through the mind and eyes of a human [since we don’t really know what aliens look like]. I just love that endless possibility.
Being based in the DMV, you’ve been able to land projects with the City Paper and even DC’s Mayor’s office. How important is that community support for you?
It’s everything to me. I realized in the beginning that the reason I was so inspired and even think the way I think was because I grew up in Maryland. The talent I’m surrounded with is always so inspiring. Doing projects for the community was what really started my career whether it was doing flyers or having my art on display at parties.
Just a few weeks ago, a lady was caught defacing your murals over at Takoma Park. What was that about?
It was very clearly intentional racism. I found out because a friend was nearby doing another mural and he somehow walked in on her defacing them. She scraped up my name, the black women’s faces, and the titles off of both of the tables. One table had “Justice” and the other “Change” within the afro of the girl. It was clearly about race and she kept saying this is “our” table. She didn’t believe I was hired and tried to say it was graffiti and vandalism. It’s a shame but as upsetting as it was, I’m fine, I’m going to be painting for the rest of my life. I think this just highlighted the fact that there is so much work left to do. I’ve dealt with racist white women my whole life. I make this art for this exact reason. It’s not about me, it’s for the community. A lot of people in the community were really upset and it was just a reminder that these things still happen.
How did the Girllaaa creative agency start?
Girlaaa started as a party series for the most part. When DJ Domo built up the team, we really didn’t know what it was going to be, we just felt like it was needed. She just asked me to come to show my art and we had a great first event. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than me and use my art beyond freelance work or my personal projects. I wanted to help support the larger movements and support black women in the creative field. Girlaaa grew so fast, now we’re an official agency. We’ve done parties, panels, Today at Apple, Hirshhorn Museum, and a lot of community work creating resources and providing resources. It’s so important to include art in these types of subjects and events because I believe art is going to save the world. It doesn’t need a language, it can bring people together without alienating anyone.
What is your affinity with Gucci Mane?
Growing up, I never heard American music in the house, but I would hear some of Gucci’s songs on the radio on the way to school and I just fell in love with his music. His consistency was something that inspired me to never let up. For him to be creative with his wordplay, be versatile with this flows, collaborate with a LOT of people, and put on other artists, it’s super inspiring to me. That’s where the name “Trap Bob” came from because I was listening to the TrapGod mixtape right around the same time that I was trying to become an artist and just thought this is the perfect way to show homage. Beyond his music, even his book was super motivational and just inspired me to keep going. When it’s time, I know I’m going to get to work with him.
Do you have advice for up and coming illustrators?
Work on self-awareness in the personal and professional sectors of your life. Situations can happen where your art may be successful and you’re getting work but if you don’t have the self-awareness to know how to gauge yourself and where you are mentally, then you almost hold yourself back. Do research, practice, and don’t worry about validation. It’s not going to come in the beginning, if at all because you have to validate yourself. Art is a serious craft and industry. It takes so much work and practice. So be ready to put in the work to network and put yourself out there. Push forward and don’t let anything hold you back because there’s no time limit on your dream.