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Meet the Artist: Sean Burton

Meet the Artist: Sean Burton

The story of Babs started in 2001. With this photograph. It just shows the life of the work, how it's gone from

a photograph to street art. And now it's here at the Shrine. And to see it on this magazine, the whole story,

is just fantastic how it started here, and gone, ended here.

My name is Sean Burton. I'm an ex-serviceman and I'm an artist now.

Back in 1982, I bought a record by The Clash, called 'Straight to Hell', and inside that record was

a thing called a stencil. I pulled it out, and I thought, 'hey, I like the look of this',

and of course, give me an aerosol can, and I went out and I started doing my first stencil.

And from then on, I was sort of interested in graffiti art, outside art. But then I went into the military

a few years later and sort of parked all that sort of stuff for a while.

And it wasn't until I left the service that I was starting to be drawn back to artwork again.

I'm easily described as a stencil artist. I work with aerosol paint. I usually put my art on the street.

Or into a gallery, if I'm lucky enough. But with all my art I like to make it transferable,

if I can't do it on the street, I probably won't do it on a canvas.

I paint contemporary artwork for contemporary veterans from contemporary conflicts.

I want my generation of veterans, the Invictus generation if you want to call us, they can identify with my work

because it's in a medium, a contemporary medium, that they identify with nowadays

and I think they make that connection, they're drawn to it, maybe more so than some of the more classical artwork

that we've all grown up with.

I worked as a photographer in the military, and I think when I left the military, I left the photography there with it.

I wanted to paint because then I could actually take that painting, my artwork, my design, my photograph,

out on the street, and give it that audience. Really I was looking for a gallery.

And I know it sounds corny, but the streets, the billboards, that was the gallery.

Something I was very uncomfortable with in my early days of doing stencil art, was that I was using pop culture images.

And it seemed to be that there was no difference from what I was doing to what someone else was doing,

so I wanted to do something unique. So I took my photographs, and I turned, used them as basis for my images,

to painting and doing stencil art.

Back in about 2015, my mental health started deteriorating, as a result of my military service, and I wanted to

focus my artwork on something that gave my service more purpose to me and I wanted to be able to look at my service

just validate my service as well.

So I started taking my imagery that I'd taken, photographs that I'd photographed when I was in service,

and then I started using them as the base images for my, my artwork instead. And I found I was more

engaged with it. And it really helped me, it gave me purpose and it helped me validate my service.

Because I'd sort of lost a lot of faith in what I had done, and I was really just trying to make sense of it all.

And it was a great tool to help me with, you know, strengthening and giving me mental health fitness.

In a lot of my artwork, I want to focus on the positives.

And the good, the strength, the characters, the qualities.

And I think the majority of service men and women, they're quite optimistic, resilient people.

And they do look towards positives by their very nature.

And that's been demonstrated throughout their service, they're go forward kind of people.

Back in 2001, I was a photographer and I had one of the first generation digital cameras on loan to me

and that gave me a great opportunity to go out and photograph the guys I was with

and being attached and embedded with them, I had unlimited access so I got to catch them at

quite, you know, quite natural moments, when they were unguarded and this was one of these times.

I was out with Babs, we were on what they call a 'vehicle mountain patrol', and

we were just sitting in the back of APC, bumping along, getting bounced around, and I just remember him

looking skywards and for once he looked angelic.

It was originally painted back in 2017, it was part of a series of four portraits that I did.

Babs was one of them. It was done originally as a piece of street art.

And it was applied on the streets around Melbourne, Victoria.

We put it up on a wall in 2018.

Really with street art, especially in Melbourne city, it's ephemeral, it'll be here and gone in no time and

you really can't get too precious about it, it'll just be up there, for anything to last for

a couple of days usually, you're doing pretty good. I don't know, for whatever reason,

maybe it was just a bad spot, nobody ever saw it, but it stayed up there for nearly a year.

And, when we went up and actually looked at it closely, you could actually see the layers of

other people's art work. So there was years and years of layers of other peoples' street art underneath it.

And that gave it like a real wrinkle, you could really see the dirt, the layers of artwork.

Just the deteriation over the year, been exposed to the elements,

And I liked that and I thought that actually added something to it.

And when we started lifting it off from the wall, we were conscious that it started to break away.

And when you actually look at it you can see parts have broken away.

But when we were actually lifting it off the wall, a crowd started gathering around us,

and we were getting heckled from people saying 'don't, leave the artwork', you know, 'artwork thieves'.

You know, 'just leave it for everyone', and, yeah, it's just taken on a life of its own. And I just think

you know, maybe given it a day, an hour, a day, a week, it would've been buffed over, it would've gone,

it would've been another layer.

Institutional galleries are fantastic places but not everyone really goes there, not really drawn to them.

So I wanted to make my artwork, especially my artwork of service men and women, more accessable to

just average people on the street to notice.

And that's purely why I did it.

And that really goes back to fundemantally about why I got into street art and stencil art,

it's because anyone can do it. It's accessable, it's easy.

But also, it's a way of telling Babs's story and it's the way of telling stories of other service men and women,

their particular stories. And they're not international heroes, they're just everyday people serving.

And they have great stories to tell and it's a way of making those stories accessible to everyone.

A few years on, after we'd returned from East Timor, Babs was involved in a quite horrific accident.

He was burned from head to foot but he was absolutely adamant that he was going to bounce back

and would go on and achieve greatness.

And I just remember him saying 'no, I will get out of this', and I just remember thinking,

'there's no way you're coming back from this'.

And he did. And he went on to serve with distinction.

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