In November 2020, the Library acquired a portrait series titled Behind the Paint featuring some of Melbourne’s most iconic artists, alongside their work, shot by photographer Shannyn Higgins. The series consists of 13 individual artist portraits and one hero shot, Girl Gang, featuring seven internationally acclaimed female artists. 

Girl Gang, 2020, by Shannyn Higgins. Pictures collection, State Library Victoria. 
Left to right: 23rd Key, Justine McAllister, Amanda Valdes, Lucy Lucy, Lisa King, George Rose, Elle. 

The portrait series was originally exhibited as part of festival Can’t Do Tomorrow, an urban art festival in one of Australia’s most iconic underground spaces, The Facility in Melbourne. The festival took place in February 2020 and 16,000 people attended. 

Higgins states that ‘Behind the Paint responds to the energy and sentiment of the artwork and the artist. I worked closely with each artist to identify the motivation behind their work and emulated their lighting and stylistic approach while capturing each artist’s personality in the world they had created.’

The Library was keen to acquire the series as part of the Picture Collection as it captures the distinct street art culture that has become synonymous with Melbourne as a creative city. With its labyrinth of laneways that have become the canvas for both local and international artists, street art has become a recognised symbol of the city and an indelible part of the state’s fabric. Street art draws crowds of tourists and locals alike, not just in the CBD but right across regional Victoria. The popular Silo Art Trail and Benalla’s Wall to Wall Festival demonstrates how street art can transform regional environments and their small communities. 

As collection managers we wanted to tell a story about this important artistic genre that is usually ephemeral- which is difficult to fully encapsulate and document for the future. The collection supports and promotes local artists and the lasting impact they have on our urban and regional spaces. This collection also seeks to reach a more contemporary audience, celebrating modernity, creativity and an important sub-culture that plays a pivotal role in Victoria’s identity. 

The modernity of the collection is even evident in how it came to make its way to the Library – we followed Shannyn Higgins on Instagram, attended the Can’t Do Tomorrow festival to see her exhibition and messaged her to ask about acquiring it. 

To see the full series of portraits in the Behind the Paint series, and learn more about the artists, you can explore the online gallery –

For more information on street art and artists in Australia, search our library catalogue for “street art” or graffiti

Written by Toni Burton, Collection Curation & Engagement Manager & Bridie Flynn, Senior Librarian Victorian & Australian Collections 

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