The Poetic Life of New York Artist Jack Walls

By:  Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra

Legendary artist, poet and writer, Jack Walls was trained under the guidance of  Robert Mapplethorpe. He also happens to be one of his most famous models. Walls is now a well-known artist in New York who travels in the same circles as Patti Smith and Ryan Mcginley.


A self portrait from Wall’s  Instagram  feed.

A self portrait from Wall’s Instagram feed.

Q: Where are you from?

A: Chicago, I grew up in an area called Pilsen, it was predominantly Mexican but there were also some Puerto Rican families there too. I loved growing up there; I love the Spanish language and Spanish music. I grew up dancing salsa and listening to Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon, I continue to listen to that same music now, it’s romantic, and the language is romantic to me.

Q: You were a gangbanger?

A: The first gang I joined I was very young 12 or 13 so yeah I was into that way of life through out my early teenage years. But it kind of never really leaves you; it informs the way you react to people and situations for the rest of your life, it gives you good instincts on how to read people. It makes you sharp. It’s hard to explain. Even though, when I was acting out in gangs I had future thoughts. I wanted to write, be creative. Most gangbangers are very creative, graffiti artists usually spring from gangs and that’s “criminal” behavior in the eyes of the law because you’re a vandal.

Q: Was your brother killed by a gang?

A: That was in 1977 when he died. I don’t really care to go into detail about that. Even after all these years I’m still sensitive talking about it. His death was essentially the catalyst for me to join the Navy. It made me see that there was more to life than dying for a gang.

Q: Did you join the Navy while reading J. Genet?

A: I had read Querelle of Brest Jean Genet’s fourth novel. I connected with that book in that Genet’s telling the story of a sailor’s life in the port of Brest, the idea of the homosexual sailor and the homosexual as criminal, I understood. Or I thought I did, I was young when I was reading this stuff you have to remember. So a lot of it fired my imagination, right? So all this heavily influenced me.

Q: You’re a lover of literature… you started reading Wilde? What attracted him to literature?

A: Picture of Dorian Gray, I read that first. Then I read a biography about him, after that it was all of Wilde’s other works, the plays, the short stories like, The Sphinx Without a Secret, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and of course The Ballad of Reading Gaol. His writing is so good and tricky, not to mention his own real life brilliant verbal dexterity. His life was no joke.

Q: Are you a poet, too?

A: Say so, I think in terms of the poetic. I see the poetry in most things that I encounter. I mean, it’s not just the writing of poetry, it’s leading or living a poetic life or having a poetic existence. I wrote a book of prose called The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn a few years ago, which I do as a performance piece sometimes. So yes, I would say that I am a poet.

Q: How did you meet Robert Mapplethorpe?

A: It was in 1981-82 when we met down in the West Village. We met on the street, Christopher Street to be exact, back then it was where everybody met everybody.

A buttoned up Jack Walls

A buttoned up Jack Walls

Q: Tell me about your time with Mapplethorpe.

A: My time with Robert was a learning experience; there was so much to absorb being around him. We worked all the time, everything was about work, but you didn’t really feel like you were working. And yes, it was glamorous, we were invited everywhere. We were very social, we were young… we travelled. He was smart, but not in an intellectual way because he never read books, he was a canny observer, his aesthetic and taste were better than most. Needless to say there wasn’t too much about Robert that was average. Robert was a collector, that’s what he did; I guess you can say in his spare time. But even then, it was all part of the work, the process.

Q: That was from that script he wrote called “Somebody’s Sins” about the early days of Robert…

A: No, That was not from “Somebody’s Sins” not in the initial script. Those were the early years, which pre-dated our relationship.

Q:You comment that Robert started drawing, how were his drawings?

A: He was always drawing and making sketches all his life, that’s not something you just start doing all of a sudden. They were done with a very light touch, he liked coloured pencils, and I have one of those. He drew it in one of my sketchbooks. I’ve had it all these years. I always felt privileged watching him draw. I don’t think there are many people who have actually seen him in the act of drawing. It was special.

Q: You started doing “ADA” collages?

A: My first one-man show was in 2008 it was a show of the ADA collages. I’d been working up to the idea of doing a collage based on one image just to see how long it would take me to exhaust the idea. Well, it took about two years. That was a good series to work on. It was somewhat labour intensive but no good art comes easy.

Q: In the 90s you joined young artists like Ryan Mcginley, Dash Snow or Dan Colen. What were those young artists who were then great artists of art?

A: They’re always present in my thoughts, a part of my life. I talk to Ryan McGinley all the time, Dan got really busy but we see each other from time to time. I think about Dash all the time.

Some recent posts on Jack Walls’s Instagram feed.

Some recent posts on Jack Walls’s Instagram feed.

Q: You still feel the inspiration of Robert, Patti Smith or Sam Wagstaff, is it?

A: Absolutely, in so many ways, Sam’s mind was fascinating; we were around one another a lot. He was a collector too. I feel really fortunate to have been exposed to his talent. The three of us, myself Robert, and Sam would travel to Europe together. They were such strong personalities, it was elegant being around them, and I felt protected. Patti Smith has taught me so much. When I’m having a really hard time I like to talk to her. She’s a good role model; she’s been through it all. She really invented punk rock. I mean, she really did, and that’s huge, you know? She was the architect of that whole thing, that moment in time, that movement. I love the way she draws too. She also influenced my drawing style, it is a combination of Robert and Patti’s, when I draw, that’s what I aim for. Yeah, so for me those three are the triumvirate, the trifecta, the holy three. Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff, Patti Smith.

Q: Let’s talk about what you are currently working on?

A: I just had a show at Carrie Haddad Gallery here in Hudson, which is where I live. These days I’m mostly concentrating on painting because I like to paint. But I’m still writing too and making other things. I’m not going to do any spoken word/poetry stuff for a while I’ve decided, unless something changes that.