Damien Hirst never knew his own father. Growing up in the working-class town of Leeds, in the north of England, he got on well enough with his stepfather, a car salesman named Hirst, who had married his mother when Damien was a year old, but the marriage collapsed after twelve years and two more children, and Damien's mother (who reverted to her maiden name) concedes that by then she had lost control of Damien.
After getting out of school, Damien hung around for a year or so, not knowing what to do with himself, until it occurred to him to go to art school. He had always liked to draw. He took the foundation course at Jacob Kramer College, an art school in Leeds. After that, he applied to two professional art schools - St. Martin's, in London, and Cardiff College, in Wales - and was turned down by both of them.
Hirtst's success results in part from the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi's purchases of a large amount of work by Hirst in his early days. Because Saatchi was regarded as a knowledgeable collector, his accumulation of Hirst's work had the effect of creating prestige and scarcity, thereby inflating the market valuation and making any Hirst work a valuable commodity.
Hirst's frankly commercial attitude to his art accommodates the spot paintings as products and even personal logos. He attaches no stigma to their abundant supply or to his own distance from their manufacture; rather, he has said that he needs the comfort of mass production in addition to the room to make unique works.
Dead animals are frequently used in Hirst's installations, forcing viewers to consider their own and society's attitudes to death. Containers such as aquariums and vitrines are used as devices to impose control on the fragile subject-matter contained within them and as barriers between the viewer and the viewed. The animals are preserved as in life, but at the same time are emphatically dead, with their entrails and flesh exposed.
Hirst's paintings can be seen as a foil to his sculptural work, though they are similarly inconclusive. The ‘spot' paintings are named after pharmaceutical stimulants and narcotics, the chemical enhancers of human emotion, and yet take the form of mechanical and unemotional Minimalist paintings. Their detachment is further emphasised by the exploitation of procedures that can be simply carried out by assistants under his instruction.
Three elements drive Hirst's work: art, science and religious belief systems. He draws from these areas to create new and challenging works in paintings, graphic editions, sculpture and installations. Coming from a Catholic background but now an atheist, Hirst believes in the priority of art.
In 1991, Saatchi funded and Hirst created The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Hirst had described the idea of the shark in an interview in the first-ever edition of Frieze magazine. "I like the idea of a thing to describe a feeling. A shark is frightening, bigger than you are, in an environment unknown to you. It looks alive when it's dead and dead when it's alive."
In May 2003, Hirst became the first artist to have his work sent into space. A spot painting was used as an instrument calibration chart on the British Beagle lander, launched that month as part of the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. The painting was accompanied by a track by the British rock band Blur, to be played from the probe as a signal that the Beagle had landed.
Hirst's shark sculpture became the icon of British art in the 1990s, and a symbol of Britart worldwide. Even if a shark could be seen in an aquarium or as a preserved specimen in a zoological exhibition, any artist attempting to replicate Hirst's concept would be seen as something akin to a conceptual plagiarist.