Episode 3, Art Inside

Carving out a better future with Mark Lang


Neil Wallace:

Mark's journey through Northland and Hawkes Bay prison, including Te Tirohanga, the Māori Focus Unit, helped him reconnect with his  whakapapa and find his true direction. Now he is the owner of Tikapona Toi Gallery and Studio in Dargaville, where he shares his art and teaches carving and promotes creative wellbeing in the community.

We're thrilled to have you here, Mark, and we're really excited to hear more about your inspiring story and what you've learned from it along the way. Welcome to the show.

Mark Lang:

Yeah, nah, thank you Neil.

Neil Wallace:

 Mark, it was great to catch up with you at your awesome gallery in Dargaville. It really blew us away when we visited, and also at our recent Pōneke wānanga.

Can you tell our listeners about your journey into discovering whakairo, becoming a carver and opening your own gallery?

Mark Lang:

My journey into discovering whakairo and discovering myself began probably about ten years ago. I was working as an engineer in Whangārei and I fell into the methamphetamine world and developed a pretty chronic addiction to methamphetamine.

So as a result of that, I ended up stepping foot into one of the largest methamphetamine laboratories in New Zealand. Pretty much over before it even started for me once I crossed that line. I was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. I was sent to Ngawha prison. After sentencing, walked into that cell and when the cell door closed, it took my breath away and I thought, gosh, what am I going to do from here?

So I decided from that day onwards that I was going to do my best and everything in my power to be able to get out on my first parole hearing. So yeah, the next day I decided what I was going to do. Took a while for them to get all my sentence plan sorted out, what I had to do to get out what I needed to achieve.

And what I needed to achieve, it wasn't really offered at Ngawha prison. So I opted for a transfer to Hawkes Bay Regional Prison. I went to the Te Tirohanga Māori Focus Unit in Hawkes Bay Regional Prison. And pretty much soon as I hopped out of the van there and saw 60 men standing there with taiaha and starting a haka pōwhiri to welcome me into the unit.

That's when I felt the big shift. You know, I started learning tikanga, mau rākau. Before I went into that unit, all I pretty much knew was that I must be Ngāpuhi because I live up north, and through the guidance of all the kaumātua – and I must acknowledge Hone Fletcher who was my tikanga one teacher, my brother Ngāpuhi –  he helped me find out who I was. He helped me find out where I was from and ultimately where I'm heading and I started becoming grounded.

I started doing all my criminogenic programmes, offence mapping, identifying my victims and just through the journey in te ao Māori, you know, it was so uplifting and so life-changing, like I mentioned, just becoming grounded and finding out who I was, you know, I've never had that before in my life.

So, you know, it was a huge shift for me. And so this whole journey was created from being in Te Tirohanga Māori and being part of the Hōkai Rangi programme. And I really found my true calling through that programme and everything it had to offer.

I had to put my hand up. I had to chase it to achieve what I wanted to achieve. You know, there were sacrifices to be made. I had to stay out of trouble. And I've done that and you know, that's what I attribute my success to is releasing all those things that were weighing me down, carrying heavy on my shoulders, through my spiritual journey, spiritual healing, ultimately through the arts and creative wellbeing.

Neil Wallace:

That is an amazing and powerful kōrero, Mark. Thank you so much for sharing, man. You mentioned that Hōkai Rangi when you were inside was a programme. Do you mean the Hōkai Rangi Strategy?

Mark Lang:

Yes. You know, you're right there, Neil. It is a strategy. I was part of the team that helped co-design Hōkai Rangi. There was a select few prisoners that they wanted to jump on board to discover the pain points and what was needed. I worked with Hone Fletcher in the Hōkai Rangi Strategy team to help roll this out. And help with the soft launch of Hōkai Rangi.

I think that was a big part of my rehabilitation. Being able to be invited to work on something so massive and so life-changing for a lot of tāne in Hawkes Bay Regional Prison.

And that's what opened doors for me. Because I gained the trust and gained respect for trying to create a kaupapa for the betterment of the whole prison facility.

Neil Wallace:

Yeah Mark, I really want to acknowledge that; that mahi in that space. Because what we've learnt from listening to Hone and Beth about the Hōkai Rangi Strategy is the massive impact that's happening nationally now across Aotearoa's prisons. And so I just want to recognise your mahi in that particular space and your contribution to it.

Mark, I'm very interested to know what engaging with the whakairo programme at Hawkes Bay was like for you, and if you'd had any experience with whakairo or any arts before that time.

Mark Lang:

Yeah, it's funny that, Neil, because I never considered myself an artist. I am an engineer and I've spent over 25 years fabricating stuff out of steel, building structures. You know, right from sheet metal fabrication to commercial structures. So when I really think about it, all I've done is just really changed the medium. I've gone from steel to wood.

It was a bit of a struggle learning to carve because I was used to using squares, protractors,  string lines. And now I had to start trying to draw curves and circles and freehand.

So it took me a while to get my head around that. But the thing about being in prison is reflection. You have so much time to reflect. You know, you go to mahi during the day, you carve, you draw, and then you go home at night and you reflect on your day's mahi.

That's something that we don't get much on the outside here. We don't get much time to go home and, you know, reflect about our days because it's just far too full-on. It's far too busy. So I had plenty of time to reflect about my carving, different ways, different styles, and just reflecting on what I was going to do with my carving when I got out. And I think that was the thing that made the difference in being able to have my plan all ready for when I got out.

Yeah, it made a big difference being able to reflect.

Neil Wallace:

How do you think that ability to reflect served you in your practice? And do you think that this is something that we're missing? 

Mark Lang:

Absolutely, Neil. It was paramount in the planning of my gallery and I still have a lot of time to reflect. Sometimes I do my best planning when I wake up in the morning or when I'm lying in bed and I can plan my day and I know what I'm going to do the next day.

I know exactly what's going on. You know, I still do a lot of reflecting, which is, um, I think it's a great asset to be able to have for myself. 

Neil Wallace:

Mark, can you tell us about your time in the Te Tirohanga Māori Focus Unit?

Mark Lang:

Yeah, my time in the Whare Te Tirohanga unit was a huge part of who I am today. Before I went into that unit, you know, I didn't have a spiritual bone in my body.

I didn't have a higher power. I didn't look up to no one. I didn't know who I was. By the time I went through that whare, I knew who I was, where I'm from, where I'm going, what I stand for. And I have a connection to te ao Māori. I have a connection to Rangi and Papa. You know, I live in a realm between Rangi and Papa.

And I live by the values that were placed by Te Ara Poutama. Living a tika and pono life, living a life with honesty, integrity, and truth, you know, that's what people want these days. They want to be able to rely on people. They want to trust you. Being in the whakairo art space, providing taonga for twenty-firsts, for sports teams, for community projects.

They want to know that this taonga is made with love and aroha and mana, and that all the practice that surrounds this taonga is tika and pono. And I learned all that from being in the te ao Māori space. Prior to going in there, I didn't know any of this. And I think that's why I'm feeling so grounded, and why I've got so much community support is from taking on these Māori values that I live by every day.

It serves me well. 

Neil Wallace:

Mark, I really appreciate your kōrero. I'm hoping you might be also able to speak to how Māori culture, or cultures in general, play a role in the arts. Can you describe for us the connection art has to culture, and how that can empower a person in a prison setting?

Mark Lang:

Yeah, so in the prison system, most units have a carving room. There can be up to, you know, 15 in these units, in these carving rooms. And they're all carving taonga. They might have a kid's birthday coming up. So they're carving a taonga to send out to their family. You know, this is, this is all mana boosting for them. They get the gift of being able to create for their whānau, and it enhances their creative wellbeing.

Māori culture, which most of my whakairo is based on, you know, it gives me the connection. And I feel like it's a taonga, it's a gift that I have that needs to be shared. The creative wellbeing aspect of whakairo in prison is massive and it should be recognised. It should be promoted in the prisons.

There should be tutors running whakairo classes and the power of it needs to be, you know, brought to front and centre because it's massive. It's life-changing. And I'm living proof of that. I've walked it, I've lived it. Now I'm reaping the benefits from my mahi and also sharing with the community.

And this all stems through arts in Corrections. Without it I wouldn't be here talking to you today about my story, about my gallery. Yeah, so it's um, it's massive. Arts in Corrections is massive, no doubt about it. 

Neil Wallace:

I totally agree with you on that, Mark. I've seen the benefits. I haven't experienced them firsthand, of course, but I've seen them really transform and shape lives, just as you've described. What would you say to those people who have their doubts about this: decision makers considering the merits of arts in Corrections; the people out in society who might look at it as a form of fun as opposed to a form of discipline. What would be your argument to them? 

Mark Lang:

They need to know their stuff, Neil. They need to look at the research. You know, they need to understand that arts is not paintbrushes and colour pencils. It's way bigger than that. Performing arts, haka, drama, it's so big. I could just about go as far to say that it could be a criminogenic programme.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that out of all the things I've done in prison, the arts helped me the most. You know, the arts rehabilitated me. The arts gave me a future. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the arts. But yeah, it just needs to be recognised, Neil. It needs to be taken seriously. You know, I'm a staunch advocate for arts in Corrections. It needs to be acknowledged at a higher level than it is.

Neil Wallace:

Thank you so much for that. What would you say to people considering coming into prisons to teach arts? Because it's not always the easiest thing to do. It can be quite challenging and it can be quite lonely work.

Mark Lang:

Yeah, you know, you're absolutely right there, Neil. It's not an easy road getting facilitators into Corrections. But hopefully through more documentation and programmes that Arts Access Aotearoa are working on, we can all come together and make it a bit of an easier road for these facilitators to be able to get into these spaces.

I  think collaboration is the key. You know, the more of us getting together, collaborating, getting these programmes front and centre for Corrections. Yeah, that's what I can say about that, Neil.

Neil Wallace:

Thank you so much for your kōrero there. What advice do you have for people in prison?

Mark Lang:

First of all, you've got to want to change. You have to make sacrifices, Neil. Nothing's given to you. You need to stand up. You need to put your hand up.

If you want to change, there is help there. You've got to get that mindset, you know, if you want to get through your programmes, they're there. You can do them. But you've got to be tika and pono about this, Neil. You've got to be honest and show that you want to change. You've got to do it for, for yourself, for your family.

I think going to the Māori Focus Unit for me was a huge blessing, and I'd encourage every person to go through to the Māori Focus Units. That's why the Hōkai Rangi Strategy came in – to make the whole prison a Māori focus prison. So it's just run like Te Whare Tirohanga Māori. And you know, there's nothing wrong with running that system.

If you're Pākeha, Chinese, Korean, you know, the values are beautiful. The values align with what we're trying to create in Aotearoa. They're all the same.

So yeah, make some sacrifices, get stuff done. You know, you want to go in there and you want to come out a better person. Stand up and get it. Don't wait for it to come to you.

Stand up and take what's on offer and ask the questions and things will come to you.

Neil Wallace:

 Mark, I know that you are working in community, working with kids, working with whānau and encouraging them in the whakairo space. I'm really interested to know what your plans are for the next five years, where you think you'll be and what you think you'll be doing.

Mark Lang:

Yeah Neil, I've got huge plans for this gallery, this space here in Dargaville. At the moment, I'm overrun with hands-on stuff. I've been on the chisel constantly. There's just so much orders getting out for carvings, taiaha, poi, patu. It seems to be that everybody's turning 21 at once at the moment. So I'm pretty much under the pump on the chisel seven days a week.

And I've got someone else. I've got Tracy in here helping me with the gallery, which is a huge help. She comes in three days a week and gives the gallery some love. That helps me to be able to carry on with my carving. I've got a whole lot of other exhibitors in here.

I like to help the up-and-coming artists, the ones that are a bit shy to get their work out. I awhi and encourage them to come in and see me.

Nine times out of ten, their stuff's hanging up in here. I just had one come in this morning. She's a harakeke weaver, very shy. I encourage her to bring her piece in. And it's a stunning piece and I showed her where I was going to display it, you know, and she came in here all shy and she walked out with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

She's got her art out there, you know, that's what fills my bucket. And that's why I've opened this gallery. I'm doing school holiday programmes. I had 30 kids over the last Christmas holidays and they could choose a little taonga. There was five different styles, just blank ones and then they draw on it and then they carve it.

It sticks into a little base and I said to them, there's a space on that base and I'll carve a name in there if you wanted to gift it to anybody. And you could see them all thinking and not one of those children kept that taonga for themselves. All 30 of them gifted the taonga, just by planting that little seed in their head that it could be a gift.

You know, that's the other aspect of getting that buzz out of arts. You know, not only do they get the buzz of creating this taonga, they get it again when they gift the taonga, and the person receiving the taonga gets a buzz. You know, that's what drew me into this arts area and into this gallery. So yeah, I want to be able to create time to go into the community and do these projects.

I want to put some big pou, you know, to the entrance to Dargaville, and I want to work with the school kids passing and sharing on the taonga of whakairo. Just running community events in the gallery. We've got a korowai exhibition coming up in July, a collaboration of Whangārei and Takiwira weavers. Got a resin art workshop coming up in June the 30th.

End of July we've got cocktails and canvas, and that should be a bit of a hoot. So yeah, working on. Freeing myself up off the tools, getting in a position where I can go into the community a bit more. Because at the moment I've sort of got to stay on the chisels because that's what pays the rent.

So yeah, I want to get to the stage where I can go into the community and don't have to worry about, you know, producing carvings non-stop to pay the rent.

But yeah, I just want to open the space for other exhibitors and make this place a community hub, you know, where everyone can come and view the taonga on display and it's, it's ever-changing. I've got new exhibitors pretty much coming in every week. So it's a huge thing for Dargaville. I've had so many good comments.

I even had someone say to me that this gallery, this is the best thing that happened to Dargaville since the picture theatre opened in the 1950s, and that's been and gone. So I felt pretty good about that. And yeah, just it's a place for learning and sharing and encouragement. We don't have anything else like that in Dargaville so yeah, it's quite a cool journey, Neil.

Neil Wallace:

Yeah man, that's a hell of a journey. When you left prison, how soon had you opened your gallery? Because I think if people knew this part of your hikoi, they would be shocked and amazed. And I'd love for you to share a little bit about that if you can.

Mark Lang:

Yeah, absolutely Neil. So I started planning what I was going to do when I got out of prison, probably about two to three years before I got out.

You know, I'd done a business management course. I had a business plan all drawn up. I had no money to do it with but I sent carvings home. I sent taiaha home, patu home, paddles home. So when I got out, that was going to fund my business. Got released in April 2023. I tidied up my taonga that I had out, re-waxed them, and I started advertising on Marketplace.

The next minute I had sold everything I had. I had to get my head around the pricing a little bit. I had to get my head around that, no, it's all right to put that price on them. They're worth that. So I sold everything that I had sent out. I had enough money to buy me a few tools, and with those tools I was able to make some more taonga, some more taiaha.

Yeah, I was getting so many orders that I needed a workshop. So, I found a workshop in June 2023, took the plunge, you know, because I had to pay rent. I was only on an unemployment benefit and I managed to be able to make enough taonga to keep my rent paid and buy a few more tools. And then after that I hooked up with The Generator, who is part of Emerge Aotearoa.

They  help out small business and startup businesses. I got seed funding, $2000, bought me some more tools. And then I had to show that I was making money and revise my business plan and my forecast, and they gave me a bit more funding, which enabled me to get all my computer gear, laptops, internet, a few other things to set the business up.

And in connection with The Generator, they decided that we're going to have a national exhibition here. We wanted to set a date for the exhibition. It was a collaboration of all the other. small businesses or the arts businesses that were in The Generator and they were going to all exhibit in my gallery here in Dargaville.

And so I had a date set for September 2023 and that was the launch of the gallery. The Generator was an integral part of that. They helped me with all the marketing. They got me on Breakfast TV. I had interviews with the Hui. It was just growing into this massive snowball. Then on September 2023, I think it was actually the 23rd of September, the gallery opened.

We had this massive art exhibition. We had over 350 people here in our little, small town in Dargaville. We had Te Karere here, Kelvin Davis, Willow-Jean Prime. It was all catered through the help of The Generator, and we ended up selling $16,500 worth of art in our little, small town in Dargaville.

And so that's how it started. You can imagine the snowball effect from that, and it just hasn't stopped, Neil. It's just, it's just kept going and going. And, you know, I probably haven't let my foot off the accelerator, because I know I have to keep my foot down. To keep this momentum going, especially in my first year of business, I know how important it is to work hard and get all the foundations laid and keep them solid.

So yeah, less than eight months, I opened up this gallery. I've been out about 15 months now and the gallery's still very successful and it's just going from strength to strength.

Neil Wallace:

That is truly inspiring. Thank you so much for your generosity and your time here, Mark. I really appreciate it. Thank you for your honesty and just sharing with us your hikoi, and your willingness to support your community is something worthy of much attention because it really shows not only the benefits of arts in Corrections but a life transformed.

Thank you so much for sharing.


We invite you to listen to the following episodes.

Beth Hill

Hone Fletcher

Mark Lang


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