Tenbeete Solomon looks like she’s at home. When I knock on the door, she appears through a window, emerging from the background like someone strolling through their living room. She’s covered in flecks of paint and holds a brush in her hand. However, I’m not at her house or her studio. Instead, we’re at Big Chief, the New Orleans-themed bar in Ivy City.
No, Solomon isn’t squatting. Instead, the graphic artist better known as Trap Bob is working on a mini-mural promoting her contest-winning Pabst Blue Ribbon design. If you drink the American lager, there’s a chance you’ve seen it. But if not, it’s a dark skyline complete with shining stars adorned by a flying saucer (FROM OUTER SPACE) abducting a classic can of PBR. Also, there’s a hand on there (Trap Bob loves hands). She loves them so much, I once called her the Tarantino of hands.
“They’re the perfect things,” Solomon told me next to her “Stairway to Your Dreams” structure at Refinery29’s “29 Rooms.” “They’re very relatable and something I like to do.”
Known for hands (duh), space and bold colors, Trap Bob has completed projects for national companies like Apple and Viacom; people such as Elizabeth Warren and Missy Elliot; and local entities like the DC Mayor’s Office and Washington City Paper. Her art is infectious and fun, bright and loud. It incorporates the wonders of space, but captures the absurdities of the norm. To learn more about the fast-rising artist, we caught up with her to chat about her moniker, a career epiphany and how she balances her growing body of work.
On Tap: So, Trap Bob. Is there a backstory?
Trap Bob: Yeah, there is. I used to have a Bob The Builder backpack and people used to think it was hard to say my name. I always hated the nickname thing, and then I had that backpack and a friend saw me in the hallway one day and she screamed “Bob!” And, everybody was just like, “Oh, this is okay now.” For Trap, I’m literally Gucci Mane’s No. 1 fan. He dropped Trap God when I was getting into art in 2014, and I put them together.
OT: What is the first art-related thing you remember, whether it’s something you made or something you saw where you thought, “Holy shit, that’s cool. I’m doing this?”
TB: I did a self-portrait in first grade and I painted myself as a princess, but the only princesses I had seen had been blue-eyed blondes. So I’m going into it and I was like, “You know, how am I supposed to do this?” So I ended up painting myself with blonde hair and blue eyes and a crown, and it was so crazy because I was like , “That’s me as a princess.” And then [the painting] ended up going on tour in a school art show, and I didn’t get it back until like fifth grade and I forgot about it. Now I have it in my home. I see a message behind it and where my head was then.
OT: You still have it?
TB: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s kind of similar to my style now: really big outlines and primary colors. When I look at it, I see my mind was already in that space of an artist. There was a message in the work when I wasn’t thinking about it.
OT: Did your parents ever see that?
TB: I don’t think that they thought much of it back then, because I think they just thought I was being a little girl. But, my dad is an artist and he always loved that piece because he saw the message in it. He’s the one who makes me aware of when I act like an artist, or create as an artist. He helps me see my work.
OT: What other inspiration did you have growing up? What kind of things were you doodling? Hands?
TB: Not hands, actually! I just doodled random stuff. I don’t even think I had one thing that I liked to draw. It was just a way for me to pay attention. If I was listening, I could draw and keep up that way. I really was into cartoons. I fell in love with anime. Sailor Moon is my everything.
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OT: When did you realize you could create art professionally?
TB: I never actually thought of myself as an artist or thought about having a career until my senior year of college. I was studying marketing at the University of Maryland. I figured I’d study business because then I could make money off of whatever I wanted to do, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
OT: What was the big reveal like?
TB: I was relieved, I think. When I figured it out, it was like I solved some lifelong puzzle and everything felt right. Even though it was scary to think of how I was, I was like, “How the f–k am I going to turn this into a career when I just realized that I want to do it?” But it was comforting for me to know. At least I’m committing to something I actually care about. It got to the point where I was like, “Would I sleep in my car to be an artist?” And the answer was “Yeah, I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
OT: How did you kickstart your art career?
TB: I did a lot of personal pieces. I was doing a ton of oil paintings, which is a very deep and long process. So I spent a year just practicing. I taught myself [Adobe] Illustrator after I graduated and started getting into digital pieces, because I realized at the very least, I could do freelance work.
OT: You’ve done graphic design for cans and staircases, and you’re literally painting a door right now. How much of your time would you say is spent self-educating, trying new mediums and pushing yourself to explore different canvases?
TB: I would say out of all my time, the time I actually get to create or learn probably makes up half. [The rest is] managing and emailing, and all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I think a lot of the projects I work on end up having things that I haven’t tried before. I try to at least fit in something new with all my work. I really try to stay away from being repetitive. I think I’m always learning as I create. I don’t think I can ever be done with it.
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OT: You’ve worked for Refinery29’s “29 Rooms,” Girls Who Code, PBR and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. You’re busy as hell. How do you go about separating freelance work that people hire you to do and your own creative endeavors?
TB: That is another thing I’ve always tried working toward balancing, because I have a hard time saying no to things. I like doing different things and I do very well with direction. I think my social media illustrations are mostly for me. They’re like trending topics of things that are important to me.
OT: Your work always has a connection to social issues. How do you approach serious topics?
TB: I don’t like to go negative, really. I like to have a positive way to talk about negative things. Some of the illustrations I do have, like the different girls I make, I’ll just put an emotion behind them [that’s] more up to interpretation. But [there’s] usually a message in there somewhere.
OT: What’s next for Trap Bob?
TB: I’m doing a lemonade stand for PBR. It’s like a lemonade stand in space. I’m really excited about that. Next year, me and [local arts collective] GIRLAAA are focusing on a pop-up exhibit installation. [But I’m] not sure where, and I don’t want to be specific.