Legendary Mission District graffiti artist Clarence “Cuba” Silas Robbs, a pioneer in graffiti writing known for bringing “wildstyle” graffiti lettering to the Bay Area and painting hundreds of murals here, died on November 4. He was 57.
On Thursday, Cuba’s fellow “Ex-Vandals” crewmates began painting a mural in his honor in Lilac Alley, where he and other alley “cats” could often be found painting the walls. Cuba painted the first mural in Lilac Alley in 2006 as the curator and co-founder of the Lilac Alley Mural Project, which eventually spread throughout other corridors in the neighborhood.
Cuba was also a curator of graffiti works for the Clarion Alley Mural Project since its start in the early ‘90s, and worked on projects with the Precita Eyes Muralists, teaching younger generations how to write graffiti during the annual Urban Youth Arts Festival. In spite of his fame and massive talent, fellow artists and friends remember him as humble and kind.
Though he loved the thrill of illegal graffiti, Cuba became a widely acclaimed artist, and was commissioned to do many legal works around the city. He worked on an 80-foot-long mural celebrating the San Francisco Giants and their World Series victory in North Beach, and painted the side of now-closed Revolution Cafe and an alley at the Mission National Bank.
But “he wasn’t just a graff guy,” said his friend Sam Gifford, a former roommate of Cuba’s who first met him at a Jerry Garcia Band show in 1984. “Cuba knew everybody, and everyone knew Cuba.”
He played music as a reggae DJ, and collaborated with Emory Douglas of the Black Panther Party.
“He was brilliant. He was profound and articulate, and he could wax poetic like no one I’ve ever met,” said Lisa Brewer of Mission Art 415, who worked on the Lilac Alley Project with Cuba. On any topic he was passionate about, Cuba was “a wealth of knowledge,” Brewer said.
Cuba was an influential part of the “Mission School” art scene and inspired well-known Bay Area artists like Barry McGee and Rigo 23, said visual artist Megan Wilson of the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Cuba’s work was a form of activism, and he explored putting his art into books and manuscripts. His work is featured in collections in the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and at various universities.
Not much is known about Cuba’s early life, but he was born in Baltimore on January 3, 1964, and grew up there. His mother was an herbalist who worked for a health food store and his father was “into home ’70s high fidelity,” as Cuba wrote in an illustrated autobiography.
As a young teen, he began to “escape the Baltimore public school system at every opportunity,” gravitating toward music festivals and arts on university campuses, Cuba wrote in the autobiography book series. Fed up with high school, he convinced his parents to allow him to attend the Baltimore Experimental High School, and managed to pay his way through as a cafe dishwasher.
Around that time, in 1979, he began noticing graffiti in Baltimore: “Seeing these strategically placed tags, I knew instantly what an extremely powerful medium it was,” Cuba wrote. He began trying it for himself, and started using the name “Cuba” by May of 1980 at age 16.
Cuba became part of a small crew of graffiti writers involved in an underground punk-rock scene, and developed his distinct style during a time when graffiti was still seen as a criminal act.
As a teenager in the early ‘80s, Cuba was already well known in the Baltimore graffiti scene, but was also developing his interest in music. He decided to skip town and hitchhike his way across the country, following the Grateful Dead toward the West Coast, as had generations of “Deadheads” before him.
By 1983, at age 19, Cuba had landed in San Francisco, and it stuck. “When he found San Francisco, he realized he was home,” said Cuba’s longtime friend and fellow artist from Baltimore, Adam Stab, who called Cuba one of the “patron saints” in the Mission District creative world.
Although he suffered kidney failure and was diagnosed with diabetes shortly after arriving in San Francisco, and struggled for decades with declining health, Stab said, the city allowed Cuba to flourish in a way Baltimore never could have.
Cuba spent a few years in the late 90s in Maui, Hawaii, and lived briefly in San Diego, but the Mission was his chosen home. And, as he had done on the East Coast, Cuba made a name for himself, painting legally and illegally around the city.
When his health issues made it difficult to climb up a ladder to paint or get behind the turntables, he would still come out and be a part of the vibe, Brewer said.
Cuba’s friends remember him as someone unafraid to speak his mind.
“The man had stories upon stories,” which always came with some advice, said Alex “Mace” Douhovnikoff, who was among the small group working on the mural for Cuba on Thursday and called Cuba something of a father figure. “If he was giving you advice, you just shut up and take it.”
The first time he met Cuba, Nathan “Nate1” Tan was 17, working on a piece in 1988 with a fellow artist. “He was giving us props,” Tan said, impressed that the man who already had such a legacy was taking the time to compliment his work.
“In ‘88 he had been writing almost 10 years — I was just born, in terms of graffiti. I was just learning,” Tan said.
Over 30 years later, Tan was working on a “legal wall” piece with Cuba and others, and his ailing health meant Cuba had to ask Tan for help finishing his piece. When he stepped back, thinking he was finished, Tan realized he was far from it.
“He told me without mincing any words: ‘Nate, that shit is looking wack! Could you fill it in solid and then re-outline it?’” Tan said, laughing in disbelief. He fixed the character he’d painted of Cuba “on the double.”
Muralist Sirron Norris, who was once commissioned to paint a new mural over a wall Cuba and others had worked on at Revolution Cafe, said he learned a lot from Cuba in that mix-up. The cafe owner had commissioned Norris for a new mural without alerting the painters of the original mural, he said, and Norris’ new work was vandalized.
“He never blamed me for my lack of knowledge, my naïveté” with regard to the San Francisco graffiti scene, Norris said. “This guy sits down with me, and lays it out for me.”
Friends will remember Cuba’s eternal optimism and strength. Even though he spent the last several months of his life at San Francisco General Hospital, he would still express his excitement to get back out and paint the town, said Gifford, his former roommate.
“Cuba was the strongest person I ever knew,” Gifford wrote in an email. “Average life expectancy on dialysis is something like five to seven years. He was on it for almost 40. His will to live was unbelievable.”
To those who knew him, his endless dedication to his craft made him the master that he was. “He was a messenger of the culture to the people,” Stab said. “Cuba was one of those people who tied together not just places but ages.”
In honor of Cuba, an intimate gathering of friends will be held, but his community is planning a more public ceremony, which is still yet to be finalized.