All Or Nothing: A Conversation With The Legendary Artist, Writer And Cultural Survivalist Jack Walls

text and interview by Adam Lehrer

Getting to talk to your heroes is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there is a massive sense of glee and feeling of, “Damn I’m doing it” that arises in anticipation of the conversation. On the other hand, the recourse of the hero in question becoming an actual flawed human being stripped of the mystical powers that you have built up around them in your mind is a serious concern. That made it all the more gratifying to me that after talking to artist and writer Jack Walls, the man became both more human AND more mythic to me throughout the conversation.

Walls is known throughout the art world as many things. A poet. A creator of images. A romantic. The long-term boyfriend of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. A perennial outsider artist rebel. An icon.

He dreamed of being a writer and an artist since he was a South Chicago gang-affiliated youth in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, surely being one of the few men to look tough with an Oscar Wilde book in his hand. With a penchant for adventure, he joined the Navy in the ‘70s, settling in New York City after.

Walls became a slightly enigmatic downtown NYC staple as Mapplethorpe’s boyfriend in the ‘80s, often appearing in Mapplethorpe’s images clad in tight jeans and a tank top. After Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Walls embarked on a film career, studying at Chicago Filmmakers. He tried to get a Mapplethorpe biopic off the ground for years before being frustrated into stagnation in the ‘90s.

When Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow, and Dan Colen formulated a new downtown NYC rebel art scene in the late ‘90s, they all uniformly cited one artist as a massive influence: Jack Walls. The trio was hell bent on having Walls become a mentor of sorts to them, perhaps even a father figure, and eventually Walls relented. Through the process, an entirely new generation of art weirdoes found themselves interested in the work of Jack Walls. He was the subject of a solo exhibit at RARE this past summer, while another exhibition Paintings, Et Cetera opened up at Basilica in Hudson. Though Walls claims to have no interest in the “antiquated system” that is the art world, the art world is surely interested in him.

His writing is also getting more attention than ever. His poem The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn, an epic rumination on love, grief, and life after love, garnered near unanimous praise. Indeed, it’s a devastating read.

Few artists have been able to shift between visual art and the written word as seamlessly as Walls. When photographing him for this article in Gramercy Park, it’s clear as to why: the man oozes soul and poetry. Just sitting still, he gives off the presence of a man deep in profound contemplation. Walls and I were able to speak at length on, well, everything: his early impressions of literature, Mapplethorpe, Dash and crew, the art world, and the strength that can only be achieved through tremendous grief.

Now based in Hudson Valley, Walls is as active as ever.

ADAM LEHRER: When you went to the Navy, you took three books with you: the dictionary, the Bible, and Babel by Patti Smith. The dictionary and the Bible are, of course, important works for any aspiring writer, but what was it about Patti Smith’s book that made it the third essential book? How did it affect you as a writer?

JACK WALLS: I discovered Babel before I knew anything about Patti as a singer. I was listening to soul music. The punk thing was new. I was aware of Patti’s image, but I never listened to her. I saw that she had a book out, and I picked it up. Every time I would look back at a passage, it did something else. Right away, I knew that this was not something you read in one reading. It’s something that evolves. I thought it was interesting how she flipped language back on itself. I knew it was special. It was something that you can pick up and read starting anywhere—just like the Bible and the dictionary.

LEHRER: So you love words?

WALLS: Mm-hmm.

LEHRER: I think all artistically inclined people have one thing they’re sensitive to. Maybe a painter is sensitive to visuals. A musician is sensitive to sounds. Are you more sensitive to words than you are to visuals?

WALLS: No. I look at words as paintings. Any good writing is visual. Any good sentence paints a picture. Having said that, I spend a lot of time with photographers. [A lot of them] don’t read. Beyond that, they’re terrible spellers. Their whole thing is visual. I don’t know if that’s true of all photographers; no one’s today. But from my own personal experience, I can tell you. One of them was Robert. There are others that I’d rather not mention.

LEHRER: When you started reading heavily in Chicago—James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde—did literature fill a void that you were, up to that point, filling with gangs and that sort of lifestyle?

WALLS: I always knew how to draw and paint. They say God gives everyone a gift, and I took it for granted. The challenge for me was wanting to be a writer. When I was in seventh grade, I read Manchild in the Promised Land. I was obsessed with that book. Where I grew up, on the South Side of Chicago, wasn’t [that different] from Harlem, though Harlem was much more gritty. Even though it was tough, it was still sugarcoated in the way Claude Brown wrote Manchild in the Promised Land. It made me want to go to New York. It made me want to be a writer. It made me want to try heroin. I thought that I would have a better chance at success as a writer than as a painter. The tools were minimal—a pencil and a piece of paper. If you were big time, you would have a typewriter. To be a painter and an artist, you would need a whole arsenal of utilities. It’s a lot to carry around. Having said that, even as I was trying to make myself into a writer, I had sketchbooks. I was always doodling. I always had the reputation of being a good drawer. When I was in the military and in gangs, people would always say, “You draw so good.”

LEHRER: You describe yourself as a romantic, or being invested in romanticism. Especially from a certain time period, there’s a romantic vision of a writer. I always think of William S. Burroughs with a hashpipe sitting in a nice bed somewhere. Did you have a romantic vision of being a writer?

WALLS: Oh, yeah. I didn’t join the Navy because I was patriotic. I joined the Navy because I wanted to see the world. By that time, I had stumbled across Genet. Before I joined the Navy, I was going to the gay bars on the North Side. There were always these soldiers coming from Great Lakes, which was the naval base outside of Chicago. That sparked my imagination.

LEHRER: So, you were thirsting for experience more than anything, and hoping to filter that into your writing?

WALLS: I knew that in order for me to write, I had to go out and have adventures. I was joining the navy to write about it later. At that point, before the Navy, what was my experience? West Side Story? That was done already. Especially by the time I joined the Navy in the late ‘70s, the narrative of growing up in the inner city and being a gangbanger—that was uninteresting.

LEHRER: I read your interview with Ryan McGinley in Vice some years back. You said that gang life had a romanticism to it. Do you still feel that way? Maybe it was romantic when you were involved with it, but now hearing about what’s happening on the South Side of Chicago, there doesn’t seem to be anything romantic about it.

WALLS: Back then, we were still basically living in the 1930s. We were fashioning ourselves off Bonnie and Clyde. We were mimicking Humphrey Bogart, John Dillinger, James Cagney. We even dressed like that. I look back at it now as play-acting. These kids today are play-acting, but they’re play-acting Scarface. These guys go to Iraq, and they come back to gangbang. They learn how to gangbang in that war with real weapons. So it’s a real difference. People are not so naïve. It’s hard to romanticize people flying planes into the World Trade Center. There’s nothing romantic about that at all.

LEHRER: When you got out of the Navy, were you already making art and/or writing, or did you kind of start when you met Robert?

WALLS: I was always doing it. But I was doing it because it was what I did. I didn’t go to art school. Some people move to Manhattan specifically to start hanging out in galleries. I wasn’t overtly thinking like that. I got real jobs. I worked as an usher in a movie theatre. I tried to be a waiter. Then, I ended up as an office clerk for a car company. That’s what I was doing when I met Robert.

LEHRER: When you met him, did you know he was a famous photographer, or were you just attracted to him?

WALLS: It comes back to Babel. In Babel, one of the first pictures is of this guy holding up what I thought was a string. It was a self-portrait of Robert pushing the plunger to take the picture. I didn’t realize that was him when I met him. I was living with Robert for several months [when I realized it was him]. I went to St. Mark’s Bookstore, and they had reissued Babel. I picked it up, and when I opened the book, the picture of the guy with the string was Robert. This book… This guy—I carried it around with me for my entire military career. I didn’t put two and two together until we had known each other for about a year. And I was like, “Babe, that’s you.”

"Grief and romanticism is the same thing. If you can romanticize grief, I don’t want to say you hit the jackpot, but you really have something. What are you going to do, wallow in it?"

LEHRER: That’s amazing.

WALLS: I think experiences happen to you for a reason. And then there’s the simple fact that I’m here. Why am I here? Robert died of AIDS; most of the people I know died of AIDS. Here I am at 58-years old, healthy as a horse for the most part. Is there some sort of plan? I didn’t have my first one-man show until I was 50. I was minding my own business when I met Ryan McGinley, Dan Colen, and Dash Snow. This was the late ‘90s. In the late ‘90s, the art world had shifted, especially the young art world. It was more independent films and Sundance. Sam Rockwell. Jeffrey Wright. The list goes on and on. The art world was wide open for Ryan and Dash.

LEHRER: Those guys turned out to be incredibly successful and influential. What did you find so exciting about them when you first met them?

WALLS: Nothing.

LEHRER: Haha, nothing?

WALLS: Dash was 17-years old. He was doing this graffiti thing. I thought he was going to get in trouble. He was always running from cops. That’s also when the point and shoot came out. Photography was getting easier. Everybody became a photographer, as evidenced by Instagram. Dan Colen had just got off at RISD. He was the only one that seemed to have a plan. The first painting he ever did, which we showed to me, said “JACK.” Just my name, and he had fake diamonds and all this stuff in it. His plan was to only make two paintings a year, but they were going to cost $20,000. He thought he could make $40,000 a year, and that would be it. I didn’t know it was going to take off the way it did. I remember when Ryan told me that he was going to have a show at the Whitney. I thought it was never going to happen.

LEHRER: Were they nuisances? Were they destined to have you as their mentor?

WALLS: I don’t know. I used to party with them. We would be hanging out in Cherry Tavern. It didn’t occur to me that I would be a mentor. It was more organic, I guess. Their pictures were so good; VICE became interested in them. Ryan became their photo editor. Dash was taking pictures and that’s when he was doing these photo-realism things.

LEHRER: I feel like people are so interested in Dash because of this lifestyle or this myth that he created around himself. People forget that there was a lot of emotion and a lot of politics in his work.

WALLS: Oh yeah. He used to drive me crazy. Everything was an inside joke. Dash got locked up in LA, so he had to do some time out there. Once you get locked up, the white people hang out with the white people, the black people hang out with the black people. Dash’s natural instinct is to hang out with black kids. He goes over to them, and they say, “Uh, you can’t do that.” He was a natural rebel. And that was a part of his charm. The kid didn’t give a fuck either, which is really important. I don’t give a fuck either.

LEHRER: It was almost like a rejection of the art world, but then it became almost the status quo in the art world.

WALLS: It was not aimed at trying to impress people in the art world. That’s what it has to be. It has to be like: “Fuck you.” When I was with Robert, I saw how the art world worked. He wanted to be this “artist person.” But I actually saw the politics and mechanizations of the art world. And then Jean-Michel—poor thing. His approach to the art world was all attitude and spirit, and the art world fell at his feet.

LEHRER: You’re one of the few guys who was a part of the 1980s art world—Basquiat, Keith Harring, Robert—and the next big wave—with Dash, Dan, and those guys. Do you worry that that epic downtown scene is becoming impossible in the city now?

WALLS: Oh, it’s terrible now. We were living in the center of the universe. Now, the center of the universe is the Internet. That’s what it all boils down to. I think it’s a good tool to use to get a point across and show art. But some people want to take pictures of food all day long, or take pictures of cats.

LEHRER: I wanted to talk to you about the screenplay you wrote—Somebody’s Sins—about Robert’s early years. I know it got scrapped, but given the enduring influence he’s had, do you think you would revisit it?

WALLS: It’s being revisited right now.

LEHRER: No shit? That’s fantastic.

WALLS: I wrote that in the ‘90s. I was trying to get it picked up by Hollywood. When I first met Ryan, it was lying around, and he read it in one sitting. So that’s what I was doing in the ‘90s, writing about Robert’s early years before he became famous. But it didn’t happen. And 9/11 happened, which kickstarted me into doing paintings and making things to show.

LEHRER: After the movie didn’t come through, and you were in that period of stagnation, were you disappointed about the project, or was it deeper than that?

WALLS: What I learned from that was that any contract can be broken. In Hollywood and in New York, everybody signed on the dotted line, and it just didn’t happen. It was written about in the press and everything. I have a scrapbook of this shit. They tried to resuscitate that thing a bunch of times. About three years ago, I rewrote it. In this version, Robert is dead by page 30. When he dies, we’re already a half hour into the movie. Then, it covers Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow—they come into it. And I stopped at 64 pages. I left it open-ended. I wouldn’t call it a documentary. It’s a piece of art.

LEHRER: You have always been pretty interested in cinema, even before you went to the Chicago Filmmakers to study?

WALLS: How could you not? I grew up watching the Golden Age of film—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. Those people know how to act. There was none of this Keanu Reeves bullshit. That’s not acting. These are personalities saying words. They lead these scandalous lives, they drink blood or whatever, and then they go make movies.

LEHRER: There are some great actors out there—Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender. And Sean Baker just made Tangerine. He wanted to make that movie so badly that he filmed it all on his iPhone. I feel like now is an excellent time for your movie ideas to come to life because there are so many people getting them made.

WALLS: Absolutely. Hollywood is like the art world. It’s an antiquated system. I have friends around my age that are trying to make films. They’re always going around looking for money. They look ridiculous. On top of that, you don’t really need money. All you need is energy and half a brain. You can figure it out. If you have a computer, you can do just about anything. If people stop spending so much time watching porn on their computers, maybe they could get something done.

LEHRER: Did you ever have trouble identifying as an “artist?”

WALLS: Don’t get me wrong; I worked real jobs. The artist thing came later. I didn’t even start considering myself an artist until those kids—Dash, Ryan, and Dan—started getting all this press and talking about me like, “Artist/writer Jack Walls was a really big influence on them.” To this very day, whenever someone introduces me as an artist, the stress kicks in. When someone comes up to me and asks, “What do you do?” I say, “My name is Jack Walls. Google it.” They’re asking to be entertained. Are you kidding me? Then, there’s the other side. There are people who want to always talk about what they’re doing. “Oh, I work in small construction pieces, and then there’s this collage.” Fucking shut up. I’d rather hang out with musicians. You just hand them a guitar. They actually do something.

LEHRER: Patti Smith came out with Just Kids. I’m assuming you read it.

WALLS: Oh, of course. I had my “Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn” show, and she came. She gave me the first signed copy hot off the press.

LEHRER: What was it like to read about Robert from the perspective of a woman who loved him before Robert really knew who he was?

WALLS: She is a really good writer, but I’ve heard those stories. I heard them from her; I heard them from him. It was nice to open her book.

LEHRER: I read an interview of you in Hillbilly Magazine, and you said there was a part of you that hated the art world. Do you still hate the art world?

WALLS: It is what it is. The whole thing is really smoke and mirrors. It’s maybe the same twenty people that are trying to control things from the top. Then there’s everybody else. I am what I am, but I’m still not a mainstream artist. I’m still on the outside, basically. I was never really accepted by the art world. I wanted to be left alone for the most part. Some people in the art world are really good people. But here’s the thing: Ryan and Dan became everything in the art world that I was trying to avoid.

LEHRER: You mean an art star, basically?

WALLS: Yeah.

LEHRER: You have such a loyal support base. There are artists out there who love your work so much. So you were able to infiltrate that world.

WALLS: It wasn’t intentional.

LEHRER: Are you content these days with where your career and your life have taken you?

WALLS: I’m open to having shows. I want to show. I want people to like my art and buy my art. I really do enjoy the art world in that I’m happy for the young people that are coming up now. They’re trying to change the game. The kids now in their mid-20s, they have so many inspirations around them—whether it’s me, Ryan, Dash, Warhol. You could even go back and study Renoir or Van Gogh. It’s all laid out. It’s there for the taking.

LEHRER: I want to talk to you about “The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn.” I love the line in there, “I dream so much of you that I might never reawaken, et cetera.” You have suffered tremendous loss throughout your life. Is it easier for you to work through grief, or does grief just floor you?

WALLS: Grief and romanticism is the same thing. If you can romanticize grief, I don’t want to say you hit the jackpot, but you really have something. What are you going to do, wallow in it? Just accept it. Actually, like it. It’s emotional to grieve. You don’t get to experience it all the time. I took a friend with me to the [Dash Snow show at the] Brandt Foundation, a new friend that I’ve only been seeing for a couple of months. We go for a drink afterwards, and we’re in this bar. All of a sudden, he bursts out crying. I’m like, “What’s the matter with you?” He says, “Jack, I was so moved today.” The whole theme was a lot about grief. Grief is when it gets you. I try to be a badass sometimes. I try to say I’m not even thinking about that shit. It’s when it gets you. My father died in May of 2001. I didn’t grieve that until about ten years later. It’s going to get you at some point.

LEHRER: Was it about unresolved issues, or just because that’s how it happened?

WALLS: I couldn’t go there. I didn’t even go to the funeral. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go home. This might just be me, but you can’t be a normal person and expect to be an artist at the same time. For me, it’s all or nothing.

Jack Walls' The Ebony Prick of The White Rose's Thorn can be purchased here. Follow Jack Walls on Instagram (@hifibangalore). Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Photographs by Scout MacEachron. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE