From 'humiliating' homelessness to 'beautiful artwork'
It’s just before midday and Wayne Robinson is setting up his Christmas card display to prepare for the lunchtime hustle.
The 45-year-old has become a regular fixture in the busy Bourke Street mall in Melbourne’s CBD, nestled amongst the busy crowds, shop fronts and buskers.
“I never see myself as an artist,” Wayne explained.
“I see myself as giving back.”
Wayne has lived on the streets of Melbourne for half his life.
But it’s only been in recent years that he’s become the artist that has developed a loyal following, with fans from places as far as Singapore, Malaysia and Great Britain.
In the lead-up to Christmas it’s common to find long lines of shoppers eager to buy some of Wayne’s latest designs.
“It’s individual and simplistic, but also really gorgeous,” one shopper told the ABC.
“I would rather buy from this gentleman than buy from Hallmarks,” another said. “I think they’re beautiful pieces of artwork.”
Wayne’s upbringing was not an easy one.
He witnessed horrific domestic violence as a child, spent time in the notorious Turana juvenile prison, struggled to find employment and later in life his marriage ended, leaving him separated from his son.
By 24, he was alone and homeless.
“It’s humiliating, degrading,” he said.
“First four years begging. It’s just so hard to beg. I gave up on life, really. Just live day to day.”
Wayne spent years moving locations, initially sleeping in a garden bed and later relocating to a cage beside a stretch of railway tracks.
He avoided drugs and alcohol, and did his best to stay away from the people who abused them. But despite this, violence was a common occurrence.
“I’ve had every bone in my body broken. I’ve been stabbed. I nearly died on several occasions.
“What you see [on the streets] is the evil life of society.”
His mental health plummeted and he struggled with crippling depression.
“Depression was that bad I use to look at people and see them as ghost shadows walking past,” Wayne said.
“When people came up and threw money at me … I’d mumble. I couldn’t see people for who they were. I couldn’t see their faces, their expressions.”
Wayne has a vivid recollection of the day he decided to pursue art. A woman gave him a few pairs of socks and the 45-year-old was struck by her generosity.
“I thought, ‘That’s the nicest thing someone’s ever done for me’, I wanted to give something back,” he said.
He decided to draw something and give the artwork to her as a present.
He collected pencils and paper that he would find lying on the ground, in rubbish bins and scattered around Melbourne’s cobbled laneways.
For 16 hours a day he would draw. And he got very good at it. Although he would never admit that.
“I still don’t see myself as any good,” he said.
‘It’s not fair watching them drop off like flies’
After waiting longer than a decade for public housing, Wayne has finally found himself a place to live in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
“I didn’t want my kids to see their father as a grubby homeless person,” he said.
“But they understand what I went though. So that’s what means the most. Now we have a fantastic bond and we see each other every week.”
He continues to struggle with some everyday chores in his new life; the supermarket, for instance, can be quite overwhelming.
“Back in the day there was one Leggos pasta sauce. Now there’s 50 brands,” he laughed.
But Wayne continues to find solace in his artwork, which is now professionally printed on greeting and Christmas cards.
He spends much of his time helping charities, donating his time and giving his artwork away to be auctioned off.
He also tries to raise awareness about homelessness and is on a mission to hand out T-shirts with his art printed on them to those sleeping rough.
“A lot of my [homeless] friends … have died,” Wayne said.
“Out of my 38 friends, only two have got off the streets. And I thought it’s not fair, watching them all drop off like flies.
“I thought someone’s got to do something about it.
“Because when they die, they die. There’s no legacy. They’re swept under the carpet. I think it’s disgusting. They’re human beings.”
One of Wayne’s favourite charities is Team Tigger, a community foster care network for abandoned pets.
“He’s likes to look out for those in need,” the organisation’s president, Jenny Brown, said.
Something Wayne said he would do as long as he can.
“I’ve never wanted anything for myself,” he said.
“Knowing I can give back when I’ve got nothing … that keeps me in the right frame of mind.”