There was nothing particularly memorable about the caller. He had a broad Leeds accent and a good line in quirky back-chat. But the photograph left a deep impression. It showed the young Hirst, looking barely older than a schoolboy. His eyes were sparkling with merriment as he mugged for the camera, his face virtually cheek to cheek with the severed head of a bald, overweight male corpse.
Given the monotonous desire to shock which would subsequently come to characterise much of the Young British Art movement, it seems funny to remember now quite how seriously we debated the ethics and aesthetic of this grizzly portrait. It was an image which seemed to short-circuit the critical faculties. On the one hand, it was genuinely shocking: a terrible and terrifying statement about the brute reality of human mortality, somehow made even worse by Hirst's impish, faintly medieval-looking grin. On the other it was simply laddish, filled with the kind of humour which later became associated with the Loaded generation. But either way, the portrait caught you in its trap - in its compelling, ambiguous awfulness. And as the portrait of an artist as a young man, it was clearly the calling card of a contender intent on being remembered.
Nearly 17 years later and Hirst - who was 40 in June - is a multi-millionaire artist. Once legendary for his hard drinking and macho hell-raising, he is now a more reclusive figure, tirelessly productive as an artist and as a family man. He lives on farm in Devon with his partner and their two sons and also owns a seafood cafe in nearby Ilfracombe.
Having just completed one of the most ambitious, and potentially most important British print projects of the last 20 years - a series of 44 thematically interconnecting prints and ecumenical artefacts entitled New Religion - he has agreed to meet me for a rare interview at the London offices of Science, the company he set up to manage the near industrial scale of his business as an artist. This is the nerve-centre of Hirst's activities, staffed by what appears to be a frantically busy team of young women. Inside, Science is rather like an old fashioned publishing house which has been partially shop-fitted by Clinique: somewhat shabby around the edges, but punctuated by office areas of slick, dazzling white modernity. The back garden where we talk is plain and untended - just an oblong of wiry grass and a terrace.
In his appearance - middle-aged casual - Hirst is utterly approachable. He talks with conviction and, you sense, an awareness of the legends that have been woven around his name. In another 20 years, perhaps, he'll come across a bit like Bob Dylan - studying the growth of his own mythology with a mixture of weariness and amusement.
We begin by talking about New Religion, a work which consolidates into a single, multi-layered statement the classic cocktail of his concerns: faith, God, death, love, fear and redemption - the roots of which appear to lie in his Catholic upbringing. New Religion - currently on show in Paul Stolper's London gallery - functions like a fresco cycle, from the Creation to the Last Judgement, with the artist fusing Christian iconography with the modern faith in medicine. "It was just one print to start with," explains Hirst, still with a broad Leeds accent. "Then I started thinking about all the paraphernalia that you have with religion, and the idea of new religions popping up all over the place. There's a bit of everything in it."
New Religion has all the byzantine luxury of religious art, but crossed with Hirst's defining interest in the visual signage of pharmacology, as well as a touch of rockabilly-gothic. A cross of cedar wood is stuffed with jewel-like pills; a child's heart and skull are cast in solid silver, wrapped in barbed wire and pierced with needles and razor blades; a further pill is made of marble. These elements can be assembled to make a tabletop votive display, while the prints - on silver blue and blood red backgrounds - resemble a kind of medical periodic table which has been re-labelled with the events from Bible stories. Thus miracles are depicted as drugs, and medicine as faith.
The common denominator of Hirst's art, reiterated here, is the inevitability of death and the unprovable nature of redemption. The violently disfigured animals in his earlier work make tragically eloquent not only the corporeal reality of death but also the sheer physical cruelty of the Crucifixion. So is New Religion an attempt to return a modern audience to the agony of the Passion, and to re-phrase, perhaps, Philip Larkin's terror in the face of what death - that immovable, constant occurrence - might be?
"Definitely," agrees Hirst. "You don't want people to feel safety from the fact that these things happened a long time ago. You want them to feel that it could just happen at any moment. But any violence can be just around the corner, and everything that you believe in can be taken away at any moment. That quote from Hobbes, about the life of man being 'nasty, short, brutish and poor' means that even the smallest gesture of niceness, or the subtlest nuance of kindness, becomes unbelievable."
The origin of these themes seems to lie in Hirst's childhood experience. He was born in Bristol in 1965, and raised in Leeds. But it was the separation of his parents which first caused him to question belief. "It was all fucked up for me, the whole religion thing," he begins. "My mum got divorced and then needed the Church; but because she'd been divorced she couldn't use it. And at the time, when I was 10 or 12, I thought - well, if it's not there for my mum when she needs it, then it can't make sense. When I was very young I took it very literally. But I was more interested in the blood in the pictures and in the Bible stories, than whether it was real or not."
The passage of Hirst's rise to art stardom is well charted. He came to London in 1986 to study Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. Just two years later, he curated and participated in Freeze - an exhibition held in the old Port of London Authority building featuring work by 16 of his fellow students, including Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Sarah Lucas, Anya Gallaccio and Ian Davenport. The Freeze artists made work which appeared cold, blank, dumb and almost cynically modern; on top of which they made for a perfect magazine feature. The astonishing success of this show more or less redrew the map of contemporary British art when the prevailing "New Image" Glasgow painting - richly romantic, literary, muscular - was usurped by this new school of cool.
"I think we'd just got very excited about art," says Hirst, looking back. It was one particular gallery though, which inspired him and his fellow students more than any other. "What really did it for me was Saatchi. Seeing the American artists in that first gallery on Boundary Road - to walk into a space and get snow blindness! I'd never thought on that scale before - that huge. When I saw that, I wanted my work in there; I didn't want it anywhere else. I didn't want to paint things and wait to be discovered. It was like 'fuck being discovered, let's just get on with it'. And we were making art that needed an audience, so we just had to go out and get that audience. So for Freeze I went and got a warehouse, which was very easy at the time, with all the Docklands development thing."
People now tend to assume that Hirst himself became an overnight success as a consequence of Freeze. But with a postmodern irony all of its own, the triumph of the exhibition within the London art world (and later more broadly) was what it seemed to stand for as an idea. For Hirst, however, the tremendous success had a different effect. "I remember I got really confused. Things went badly for me after Freeze. People pigeonholed me as a curator, and my work wasn't taken that seriously. So I couldn't get a gallery and I remember getting really pissed off with everybody and thinking, 'right, I'll show you. I'm going to make you eat your words'."
It was Hirst's feelings of anti-climax and frustration, however, which would be pivotal in his development as an artist. "When I got success, I remember feeling shocked that everyone turned round and said 'Marvellous darling, we always knew you'd be successful', when I really wanted them to eat shit. I found that very difficult to deal with and was thinking, 'what do I do now?'. I think that when you're a child you want to please your parents, and succeed on their terms. When I realised that I didn't want to be successful on other people's terms, but on my own - this was a turning point. That's what makes an artist, I think: when you become your own audience. You have to follow your instincts: in a way you make art for people who haven't been born yet."
In a singularly neat case of actuality following fantasy, Hirst's art was initially collected and championed by Charles Saatchi; and throughout the 1990s the names of both artist and patron - soon joined by that of Hirst's young art dealer Jay Jopling - seemed to define not only contemporary visual culture, but the whole fin-de-siecle climate. Hirst began to make his iconic pieces - the distressingly halved and pickled animals, the shark, the medicine cabinets, the butterflies, the spin paintings - the whole dizzy trip of his simultaneously horrific and clinically beautified aesthetic.
And while Hirst's art over the last 10 to 15 years has gone in and out of critical fashion, his commercial success is in a league of its own. In 2003 his sculpture Charity sold for a reputed £1m - the first time a single work by a living British artist had reached this figure. Then in November 2004 the furniture and fittings he designed and made for his defunct restaurant, Pharmacy, were auctioned at Sotheby's for a cool £11m. To top it all, the shark - titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - recently sold for £6.5m to a US hedge fund manager. According to The Art Newspaper this makes Hirst the world's second highest priced living artist after Jasper Johns.
Most recently though, there has been ravenous media interest in the fact that Hirst has purchased a £3m Grade-one listed Gothic mansion in Gloucestershire called Toddington Manor. There has been much speculation about Hirst's plans for the house. "I am going to put my collection in this house that I've bought," he tells me. The contents of the collection, however, remain a mystery; it is thought to include significant works by several of Hirst's contemporaries, as well as key pieces of his own work. But in one important sense - that of "legacy" - this announcement seems to chime with Hirst's career-long obsession with death and the need to leave a mark.
As he gets older, however, it seems that Hirst's attitude to this idea of legacy has shifted. "I thought the other day, if someone said you can have sex with every woman on Earth but it means you can't leave any art behind you - well, maybe I'd do it. Erase the art. I used to think that bronze sculptures were good because they'd definitely last longer than you lived - but in the world today it's all going to be burning up in the sun anyway. I suppose that children are a pretty good thing to leave behind. Or a whole generation of artists who are inspired."
Hirst's model for Toddington - his ideal museum - is somewhat unexpected. "When I was younger," he tells me, "I found this old guy's house - he was called Mr Barnes - and he collected things off the street. He just basically kept putting things on the table until, 60 years later, he'd gone mad - and it was all still there. There's lots of these places in every big city. These old guys go around with shopping trolleys and kind of collect things; and I've always felt that that's the greatest image of an artist. And that's what I'm going to do with this house, starting with the big art collection."
What of Hirst's reputation as an artist - where does that stand today? To his supporters, his importance is unbounded. He is regarded as a cross between Marcel Duchamp and Francis Bacon - a media-fluent Goya for the modern age. But of almost equal importance to the health of Hirst's reputation are his detractors, who see his success as little more than big business masquerading as high culture. In many ways, such criticism is a re-run of the similar charges against Picasso, Dali, Warhol and Jeff Koons: that their success, coupled to their working on a large scale with technicians and assistants, renders them more like the Chief Executive Officers of their own highly successful brand. In Hirst's case, however, nearly every aspect of his career appears to have been massively amplified. And in the midst of this clamouring mythology, it is very easy for the content of the art itself - the cause of all the racket - to get lost.
But, Hirst asserts, despite the financial and media circus which surrounds him, there is still a big difference between the artefact and the market. "Art is about life and the art world is about money," he states. "Art is generous and life affirming, and is not connected on any level to CEOs or brands. It's impossible to buy art as you buy a product. Art as a product is an interesting idea, but impossible as a reality: products can be consumed, but art consumes and affirms life."
Even as he stresses the celebration of life in his art, it seems always to be seen reflected in the dark mirror of its obverse. "I always think that my work is about life," he says. "But a lot of people say it's about death. At the end of the day, there's probably not a lot of difference. When you look at an artwork you don't want to give people answers, anyway. You want to give them more questions. I remember my mum telling me I was morbid when I was little. I was always looking for a 'big catch', like when you're fishing. I was looking for universal triggers, subjects that everyone can relate to - like love or death. But he underlying thing behind it all is an excitement about life. It just seems so rich and full, and it seems strange that it would end like that, with death. In a way I don't believe that I'm going to die. I think a lot of people don't, because it's just too much to comprehend. I definitely think it's a universe where love conquers all - but only just. You've got to face up to everything. I skirt close to despair or darkness, but there's always optimism there to save you."
After we finish, Hirst pauses to study some new photographs which have been delivered - this time of the work he made for the ill fated Beagle 2 space probe. "It's great that," he remarks, looking at the tiny spot painting which rocketed to the Red Planet in 2003, never to return. As I leave, it's hard not to think about how far he has come - and the millions of miles out into the universe his work has now travelled - since he showed me that self-portrait so many years ago.
'New Religion': Paul Stolper Gallery, London EC2 (020 7739 6504), to 19 NovemberReuse content