Young British Artists: How Damien Hirst got his start and influenced British art

The name Damien Hirst has, for over three decades, ushered in gasps of admiration and shock in perhaps equal measure. The successful but controversial British artist was born in 1965 and, today, is often associated with grotesque works – including his notorious displays of dead animals.  

His name is also commonly linked with that of the Young British Artists – a group of then-inexperienced but ultimately groundbreaking artists who rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s. Over the years, Hirst has amassed an impressive fortune – but how did he initially get his foot in the door in the art world? 

From childhood to becoming part of the Young British Artists

Hirst’s fascination with grisliness and gruesomeness can be traced back to his childhood – and, according to the Biography website, his mother later referred to him as a morbid child. As a teenager, he was fond of the images of disease and injury seen in illustrated pathology books. 

Later, Hirst studied art at Goldsmith’s College at the University of London – and, during his time there, prepared an innovative exhibition called Freeze in 1988. On display here was work from not only Hirst himself but also fellow students – including Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst.  

As explained by Google Arts & Culture, all of these artists become associated with the Young British Artists movement. However, the term “young British artists” was not publicly used in reference to Hirst and his peers until 1992, when Michael Corris made the reference in Artforum magazine. The acronym “YBA” appeared four years later in Art Monthly magazine and has been regularly used since then. 

How the YBA movement became influential

For years before the Freeze exhibition, Goldsmiths had been encouraging fresh creative approaches by teaching multiple artistic disciplines – and the use of multiple materials – collectively rather than separately. This maverick form of teaching fed into the similarly off-kilter style of the YBAs.  

The YBA movement has long resisted adhering to any specific style or approach. Instead, it welcomes the use of various materials, processes and forms for the art produced under its wing. Nonetheless, some loose trends can be discerned in YBA art, such as shocking or challenging imagery and the use of found objects. 

For example, Hirst has continued to use preserved dead animals in his work, provoking ire from animal rights groups as a result. 

How Charles Saatchi further fuelled Hirst’s rise to prominence

Despite the controversy surrounding Hirst’s pieces, several of them have been bought by the famed art collector Charles Saatchi, who has also lent financial support to the artist. Work from Hirst also featured in the Young British Artists show held at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992. 

Ironically in light of the YBAs’ anti-establishment reputation, Hirst won the renowned Turner Prize in 1995, showing how the art establishment had welcomed him into the fold. His success with the YBAs also showed British artists that they could achieve mainstream success very early in their careers without having to wait years after leaving art school.