From prison inmate to gallery owner – How one man refused to let his past define his future

Carver and Dargaville gallery owner Mark Lang won’t let his dark past define his future.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Mark Lang is a changed man, seven years in prison can do that.

During that time you can either fester away and come out more bitter and twisted or you can rehabilitate yourself, utilising a number of kaupapa Māori programmes available to inmates.

Lang, 49, is a rehabilitated man and the person you see today bears little resemblance to the man sentenced in 2016 to 15 years in jail in what was the largest methamphetamine cooking operation of its day, which was duly busted by Northland police.

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Lang, an engineer, who has whakapapa to Ngāpuhi, was one of the key targets when police raided the Whangārei home they had had under surveillance for months.

Fourteen people were arrested in the sweep – closing down the manufacture of the largest amount of methamphetamine ever cooked in Aotearoa.

Lang knows he can’t hide from his past but, equally, he can’t let his past define who he is today and what he does in the future.

“I have had an interesting past few years,” Lang told the Herald.

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“I got the short end of the stick, but I knew when I put my foot over that doorway what the consequences would be. You are living in the moment. My addiction had taken over.”

Te Ao Māori has opened a new world to Mark Lang.
Te Ao Māori has opened a new world to Mark Lang.

Lang, who had never been in trouble with police, had a decent upbringing and qualified and worked as an engineer in Whangarei.

But his addiction to P, saw him head down a one way rabbit hole. It also drew him into the inner circle of the organised crime syndicate, where his smarts was put to use as a cook.

But that’s his old life and today, you are dealing with a man who has found his real calling – carving , and he has also found spiritual guidance and inner peace.

When the jail door shut at Ngawha on his first night incarcerated in 2016, Lang made a promise to himself that he would change.

“I made a promise I would get my first parole hearing and I took every class and opportunity that Corrections offered me,” Lang said.

“I stayed away from all the chaos and drugs in jail. I was adamant I wanted to turn things around.”

From Ngawha Prison, Lang was transferred to Hawke’s Bay prison where he took up carving and mau rakau – Māori martial arts, waiata, haka.

“When I got the powhiri into the Māori focus unit, I felt a huge shift,” Lang said.

Ao the po the dark to the light. Mark Lang's September exhibition in Dargaville.
Ao the po the dark to the light. Mark Lang’s September exhibition in Dargaville.

Lang said the Hawke’s Bay prison programme Te Ao Māori worldview and its approach via carving “connected him” in a Te Whare Tapa Whā sense; taha wairua, taha hinengaro, taha tinana, taha whānau and the whenua; to the past, present (within himself and around him) and as a guide for the future.

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In prison, he carved several significant taonga including a carving now located in Corrections Head Office in Wellington, Tīpuna Pou for Ngāti Pahauwera, and taonga for 2021-2022 Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards.

While carving he thinks about and is connected to his whakapapa, the stories, gods and art of whakairo which enables him to craft a taonga from raw materials.

The taonga is then gifted to someone bringing them enjoyment and mana which also gives him a great deal of satisfaction. The art of carving also taught him perseverance; “the more times you chiselled into the wood, the better you got” and this enabled him to bring a taonga and the art of carving to life, as both could have easily been lost.

Lang refuses to be defined by that dark section of his life alone and this is the reason he has named his exhibition Ao – the Po, the dark to the light.

Lang said the opening of his own gallery next month, which will also have carving classes, is a dream come true.

“I still can’t quite believe it has all come together. I started planning for this moment when I was in prison – completing a level 4 business certificate and business plan as a chance for me to change my future, and bring hope to others just like me,” he said.

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“I’m so proud of how far I have come, and feel incredibly humbled by all the people that have rallied in behind me to help make this moment a reality.”

The Ao te Pō exhibition has been named to explain how this journey has enabled him to “lighten the darkness”.

On release to his hometown Dargaville, Lang worked with his whānau and Emerge Aotearoa initiative, The Generator, to grow a carving business.

He is setting up courses with Te Ha Oranga and Kaipara schools.

Lang is also working with local iwi and Mana Whenua to create pathways for success for tamariki and taitamariki through a carving programme. His vision is to replicate the programme across the motu.

In addition, Lang is establishing Tika Pono Toi Gallery and Studio to showcase artists from Te Tai Tokerau and further afield.

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Joseph Los’e joined NZME in 2022 as Kaupapa Māori Editor. Los’e was a chief reporter, news director at the Sunday News newspaper covering crime, justice and sport. He was also editor of the NZ Truth and prior to joining NZME worked for 12 years for Te Whānau o Waipareira.

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