“It’s actually chewing gum,” he says, folding it into a napkin and disposing of it. Shame – if he’d signed it instead, it would have been worth a fortune.
From such unlikely material, since the appearance of his seminal tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde three decades ago, Hirst has minted money. The most successful by far of the so-called YBAs – Young British Artists who dominated the creative world in the 1990s – he has a personal wealth estimated this year at £315m.
In 2008, as the financial world collapsed, his art was making more money than the banks. A two-day sale of his work at Sotheby’s generated in excess of £111m.
But his defiance of convention sat uneasily with some. The critic Jonathan Jones called him “a national disgrace, a living example that talent is nothing and money is king”, and Germaine Greer said he was more a brand than an artist. The principal art form of the 21st century, she said, was marketing.
Sipping coffee in the new Weston Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Hirst seems unrepentent for having dared to experiment.
He is here as the star attraction at the first Yorkshire Sculpture International, a summer-long event which begins next weekend at venues across Leeds and Wakefield. Three of his large scale works are within sight; a fourth is just over the hill.
West Yorkshire was where he grew up but he has never exhibited at the park before.
“You neglect where you come from, don’t you?” he says, self-mockingly. “Too busy going off to New York doing shows.”
At 54, he is longer the enfant terrible of the arts world – “I’m closer to an OAP than a YBA now,” he acknowledges – but he bristles at the suggestion that he might instead have become part of the establishment.
“I didn’t get a great deal of help from the establishment to get to where I was going,” he says. “I got the Turner Prize, didn’t I, so I guess at that point maybe I became establishment. But usually when I’m getting judged on other people’s terms, it doesn’t go well.”
It was a lesson he had learned long before, on his foundation course at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds, and later at Goldsmiths in London.
“All the art colleges I was thinking of going to made you choose whether to go on the painting or the sculpture course,” he says. “But I was doing things that didn’t quite fit. When I was in Leeds, I was making collages – paintings on found objects on boards – and I decided that if anyone said no to me, I was going to ask why.”
The conventional wisdom, he says, was that “all the sculptors looked like rugby players and the painters looked like Bohemians”; that works of art could not be sold for more than £10,000 and that sculptures went on the floor and paintings on the walls. “I wanted to question everything I was presented with and prove it wrong,” Hirst says. “Not for any reason – just being awkward.
“Then you find out there are no rules, and you can do whatever you want. Which is the way it should be.”
It was an awkwardness that had been simmering for years. Growing up in Leeds, his influences had been the abstracts of Francis Bacon his mother took him to see at the city art gallery, and the stuffed animals in glass cases at the museum – though he says they did not directly inspire his later works in formaldehyde. “I went to see Jaws. That had more to do with that.”
He had begun experimenting with drawings of sharks at home, though his imagination was constrained by cost. “I’d studied in the anatomy museum in Leeds, and at the medical school, and I’d done lots of life drawings – and I knew that drawing was cheap. My grandma used to give me folded out envelopes to draw on and there was always a pen around.
“I used that technique to work out some really complicated things, like the shark.”
The ideas he fermented on the backs of his grandmother’s envelopes were the ones he pulled out of his back pocket years later when his first patron, the collector Charles Saatchi, offered him a commission. “It just needed money to make it happen,” he says. “But you can do a lot without the cash. I just forced myself to believe that things were possible.”
Becoming rich and famous through his art had seemed like a pipe dream, he says. When he saw David Hockney at a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Bradford, he was mesmerised but lacked the courage to approach him.
He took refuge instead in the burgeoning punk rock movement and the culture of rebellion it represented. “I was 12 and too young to be a punk,” he says. “I wanted to be part of it but I couldn’t be. So it wasn’t a direct rebellion. I wore punk clothes to go to school but I’d have to hide them in a bag at the bottom of the garden because my mum wouldn’t let me.”
It was to be an augury for his experience at art school – not a direct confrontation with the established order but an indirect one, he observes.
“I was never the best drawer in my class. I always wanted to be, but there was always someone better. So I had to play a long game – making good art as a by-product rather than a goal.”
However, when he left Yorkshire he discovered that he was after all a creature of convention, and that neither Francis Bacon nor even the Sex Pistols were as avant garde as he had imagined.
“I still had a quite an old-fashioned view of what art was,” he says, “and when I got to London, I was a bit shocked by all the contemporary art I was seeing. I was more into 1950s abstraction.”
It also dawned on him that art needed an audience. “You want to be able to make an impact in other people’s terms. I believe there’s an infinite number of ways to get where you want to go. But you have to have people listening to you before you can change their minds. “I used to think really hard about changing people’s minds, but into what I didn’t care. I just had to be really clever and careful about how I did it.”
He has more modest ambitions for the impact of the four large pieces installed at the Sculpture Park. “You want people to just wander from one to the other and have a nice experience,” he says.
“That’s the power and the wonder of outdoor sculptures. You put a painting in an art gallery, some rich guy buys it and it’s gone. But if you’re lucky, you can make an outdoor sculpture and have a huge effect on a whole town.”
• Damien Hirst’s Charity, Myth, The Hat Makes the Man, and The Virgin Mother are at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as part of Yorkshire Sculpture International. Two more of his works, Hymn and Anatomy of an Angel will be outdoors in Leeds city centre and his Black Sheep with Golden Horns at Leeds Art Gallery. The Hepworth Wakefield and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds are among the other galleries hosting events.