He wears a skull around his neck, but wants to be the voice of reason. Or at least to encourage some. Because, in the game of culture, Lester Hall is the joker.

The father had two pieces of advice for his son. No motorbikes and no heroin. Lester Hall has toed that line. The pop artist and opinionator didn't touch that drug and at his Kerikeri home you will find an elderly convertible Beemer, a catamaran and a mint steel Italian racing bike that looks like it has never been ridden, but no motorbike.

His dad failed to warn him of the evil drink and it took well into his 30s for Hall to climb out of alcoholism. Blame the genes. Hall's father once rode his motorcycle up the stairs of the Midland Hotel in Wellington and parked it in the house bar.

We trekked north to talk to Hall, who says the country is missing the point and the main chance on the flag business. His is the house by the river with the Beware of the Dog sign, but no dog. It is stuffed with stuff that arrests the eye: art and bargains. "Forty bucks on Trade Me," he says. "Worth four grand!"

Such as the colonial round table top adorned with a Maori-style design, enamelled in a glossy white and hung on a wall by Hall, and which looks like a million bucks.


Hall talks constantly and passionately and you believe him when he says he has a mind that races from idea to idea with some getting lost before he can lasso them. There are 200 concepts waiting in his computer, he says.

He is waging war on thoughtlessness and his battlefield is identity: yours and mine. On his website he tells his story under the heading "Tangatawho?". It features one of his postage stamp series with a Maori-ised Sir Edmund Hillary and begins: "Here I, a fiftysomething, white, male, artist New Zealander create a conversation asking who is and who isn't tangata whenua."

He declares himself "furious" about the lateness and shallowness of the flag debate. He doesn't want to be political, he says, or to talk about John Key, but does. The process is "cynical" and Key "has not said a word about unification".

He says the PM is clever and "utterly dollar-driven", like Hall's father.

"My dad went through the Depression and he would give me a lot of time but he wouldn't give me 10 cents and I think Key suffers from that. I think poverty as a child rules every decision he makes."

Hall designed a flag - Aotearoaland - that references the indigenous and colonial histories. He questions the haste to ditch the Union Jack when that history is part of us all and says his flag was never intended as a candidate for a new flag but rather as a prompt for a conversation.

He suspects we are being played. National minister Maggie Barry this week wore one of the fern flags on her lapel, which caused a stoush in Parliament. It was a badge, says Hall. "Did they make one little badge? Because, you know, it was a proper little badge.

"We have not talked about getting through this Treaty process and we have not talked about being together." The flag is the chance to signal coming back together after the settlements. "That's why you change a flag. You don't do it because there is a billion-dollar marketing opportunity in it to sell some ... lamb."

Does Hall like any of the four flags? That's a difficult question, he says. "The most powerful design is the koru, and I like Red Peak because it's made the Prime Minister face up to a discussion. But even if I saw a brilliant one, I don't like the process. You know, 'Let's pick a cute one'. It should be, 'What is the guts of us?'"

And that has been his journey and his art. He scratches the nation's sore, fuses Maori and "whitey" iconography: the Buzzy Bee and Captain Cook with moko, former All Black, and Northland Maori, Sid Going with winger Grant Batty's red hair and a grass skirt passing a severed Maori head. He describes on his website his intent with each image. "I have to, otherwise I invite the story that sits in people's heads."

Sid Going and the mokomokai got a reaction. Hall was called racist.

Is he a stirrer? "Some people call me a stirrer. There's that thing that you are trying to offend and some galleries go, 'No we don't want him, he just wants to stir shit.'

"No I don't. I just want to wake people up to a conversation and I mean Maori and Pakeha."

The head in the Sid Going work represents Maori culture. "It is the game of culture and the battle for possession of that culture."

According to Hall this artwork of his speaks to the brutality of contact sport and the New Zealand love of it but also the brutality of New Zealand's early days.
According to Hall this artwork of his speaks to the brutality of contact sport and the New Zealand love of it but also the brutality of New Zealand's early days.

His artwork is about insisting on being a proud Pakeha who is as much a part of the land as any Maori.

"The angry ones find that extremely upsetting." He doesn't take a side because he's looking for a decent result. "I don't say Pakeha are marvellous. We are not. What we don't address with Maori is that they have peacefully protested for 140 years where the rest of the world have been a fricken' nightmare.

"We need a conversation where we are not trying to bash the other and win an argument. Most Maori I meet are philosophical. They are trying to make sure their kids are okay, safe, don't kill themselves in cars when they are 15, the same as everyone else. But we don't get that picture of Maori.

Pop artist Lester Hall in his home studio in Kerikeri, Northland. Photo / Nick Reed
Pop artist Lester Hall in his home studio in Kerikeri, Northland. Photo / Nick Reed

"The picture we are constantly delivered is when they are irksome. But it's okay when they do a good haka before an All Blacks win and it's okay when they score a try."

He doesn't know why we want to change the flag but says the end of the settlements process would be a good reason. "What we are having is a conversation about a flag instead of what our flag is. The flag is supposed to be a declaration of intent for a society and if all that is, is that we are going to balance the books and sell some lamb and play footie, we are trashy shallow people."

He makes us licorice tea and tells his story. He is the son of struggle, the little boy born in Island Bay who lost his religion, the young man who disappeared into drink and who at 59 is in his third decade of sobriety.

Two seminal moments came while he worked at Auckland Museum. He found three Maori heads in a back cupboard and wondered why they were tucked away, what their stories were. He felt the fabric of a beautifully woven cloak. "It was as soft and beautiful as the fabric I bought at Saks. But I'd been told Maori were Stone Age, that they were so happy to get a blanket because what they had was so shit. Yes it was high-end and the process was very labour intensive but it produced fabulous product."

What else wasn't true, he wondered. Hall calls his "an accidental education". He started reading This Day in History, a Herald column that featured news from a century earlier. "That's where my art work started because it said something about our history."

How come "whiteys" who talked of Maori eating Moriori and of wanting to be paid twice did not know about the settler governments and laws created to take land. The goal is obvious, he says, "fraternity, liberty, equality". "How do we create those possibilities. I'm not being proscriptive because I change my mind. I'm being a prod.

"The people who will never change don't piss me off any more but there are those on the periphery ... I think a lot of people are really ignorant [of New Zealand's history] and they are afraid of their ignorance."

"Here's an easy entry," he says, indicating one of his images. It has one word: "Aroha". "It's the Phantom kissing Diana, really innocuous. But when a 45-year-old liberal woman in Ponsonby puts it on her wall and her 65-year-old righteous dad sees a Maori word on the wall and no one died, it's a process of change."

He detects change may be happening and may be is reflected in the increasing popularity of his work. His work has charged off the shelves in recent years, since he embraced pop and added "pretty colours". Though he claims he'd be scraping by if he had kids, it makes him a comfortable living.

Sharon Greig, who works in the office downstairs, is credited with the business success. When she took the job of sorting out his affairs a few years ago, she found his roll-top desk stuffed with unopened receipts.

"Lester would give [his work] away," she says, "and then he'd forget where it is." They seem a good combination as they laugh together at the results of an app that distorts photos of themselves.

Hall declares himself happy. "There are some really decent people in my life who understand me and care about me and who I love and they are here."

He jokes that he does colouring in. Difficult colouring in. "When you are trying to say, 'I demand to stand proud in this place', that's quite scary because you are telling some angry people. Why is it okay for me to say that? Because in a generalised way, I have found empathy. I'm saying, I belong and you belong."

He wears skulls on his finger and around his neck, a hangover, he suspects, from a Catholic upbringing and its ideas about demons. "It's difficult," he laughs. "Here I am with a skull around my neck and I'm trying to be the voice of reason."

The beginnings of a set of house rules painted on what was a chest of drawers leans against the garage door. There are two rules thus far. "Be kind or remove yourself" and "Be your word."

We compliment him on the magical stuff he has transformed and filled his house with and for making his word his work.

"Yeah, I'm lucky," says Hall. "Well, lucky and clever."