I spent two weeks making 500 hand-drawn balloons for Jack Walls’s 50th birthday party. It was my present to him.
Jack Walls and Ryan McGinley at Patti Smith’s house, Michigan, 1999
I spent two weeks making 500 hand-drawn balloons for Jack Walls’s 50th birthday party. It was my present to him. With a black Sharpie, I drew all of his classic expressions on 500 silver balloons. He’s well known for these sayings and everyone who knows him has their own Jack Walls imitation.
Jack is an artist, writer, muse, and infamous man-about-town. He was Robert Mapplethorpe’s boyfriend for many years, up until his death. Jack grew up as a gangbanger in the ghetto of Chicago. He joined the Navy for a few years and then moved to New York and met Robert in the early 80s. Jack is in many of Robert’s most famous photographs.
I met Jack in the late 90s, right around the time I started making my own photographs. He’s been like a big brother to me. After his birthday party was over I couldn’t part with the balloons. I deflated them all and took them back to my studio and made a book out of them. Jack claims he didn’t say half the things we say he did, but if you’ve ever heard him talk, you know that everything he says is instantly quotable.
Vice: You have these sayings that all your friends know you for. Everyone tries to imitate you.
Jack Walls: Some of this stuff I never said. People tell me I said stuff and I know I didn’t say it and they argue with me! Like I never said, “Spaghetti is straight until you boil it.” What is that? Dash Snow made that one up. He is the main culprit. I’m not even lying. Look, out of all the shit I say, do I ever make reference to food? That’s a dead giveaway. I cannot equate food with talking shit. I don’t operate like that.
I’m calling this article, “Why Is Jack Walls the Coolest Motherfucker on Earth?” and that’s my question for you. Why does everyone want to be your friend?
Come on, you’re a celebrity in certain circles.
Yeah, a very limited circle. The circle’s about an inch.
People want to know you. You’ve lived like ten exciting lives. You’ve been in the Navy and in a gang, you’ve been a notorious downtown New York junkie, you’ve been the boyfriend to basically the most famous photographer of the later part of the 20th century…
I don’t know, I don’t think that’s nothing. I think I’m a late bloomer and for the first time in my life I’ve decided to really pay attention to art and writing, so I really do believe that I’m just starting out.
Shit, I guess that gives hope to all of us.
Jack Walls and Robert Mapplethorpe in New York, 1985. Photo by Gilles Larrain (www.gilleslarrain.com)
Hey, it ain’t over till it’s over.
Where are you from?
I was born in Chicago, 1957. I lived there until I went into the Navy in 1978.
You were a gangbanger, right?
I participated in gang activities, yes. I tell you one thing, being in a gang is like being gay. Anything that’s all guys is gay, that’s why I knew the Navy would be perfect for me. Psychologically, I already knew, even at a young age, that being in a gang or the military or being an athlete, it’s all homoerotic. Plus I was a big Jean Genet fan. Being in a gang was romantic. Everything I do has a sense of romance to it, everything.
Tell me about your gang.
The gang I was in was called the Morgan Deuces, in the Chicago area called Pilsen, and I was in the gang from the age of 14 to 17. I got arrested all the time. My brother was killed from gangbanging. He was shot and killed.
Me and you both have two sisters and six brothers, one of whom died. It’s such a weird coincidence, isn’t it? What was it like growing up with such a big family? What were you like?
I don’t know, I’m pretty much the same. People don’t change. I’ve known you for ten years and you’re exactly the same, except maybe you got a little bit worse.
I thought I got better.
Well, think again.
Do you remember how we met?
I can tell you exactly. We met in June 1998. I had just come back from LA and the day I got back the actor Dwight Ewell said, “You have to meet these kids, they’re the best.” And I told him, “Look, I don’t want to meet anyone, I just want to go to Cherry Tavern.” Somehow he tricked me into going to this party and the first time I saw you, you were sitting there getting your hair cut. I was so pissed off that Dwight had set me up, I went out and sat in the hallway. Later that night some people were hanging out at my place on 29th Street and you showed up at 4 AM. We talked about photography.
That was our initial bond. You had Mapplethorpe prints and Patti Smith drawings, and it was a clutter of art books and weird art objects and postcards everywhere. It was 20 years of collecting stuff. All I could think was, this was the coolest place I’d ever been to. I’ve styled my own place based on how yours was. You knew so much and you taught me so much.
But at that point in my life I had turned my back on the art world. I definitely didn’t think of you in terms of being an artist. I remember one night, you were about to drop out of college, and you said, “Jack, I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’m not gonna get a job and I’m not gonna bartend.” And I remember thinking, OK, he’s on the right track, because that’s exactly how anyone I’ve ever known who ever did anything with themselves did it—they never developed another skill. That’s the trick. I’m gonna be an artist and nothing else. And that’s when I decided I would help you. And I helped get you that show at 420 West Broadway.
That was my first photo show. You also helped me get my first internship. You always helped me out. Yet I never took your advice, and you were always right. You’re always like, “You’re so stupid. I told you two years ago not to do that!” So tell me about this new art project of yours.
Well, last winter I started making collages and I’m going to have a show of them at Fuse Gallery this February.
What inspired the collages?
Last year around this time I quit smoking. And every time I wanted to smoke a cigarette I did a collage instead. And the next thing you know I had 66 of them! That’s the truth. I’m not gonna make it seem like Robert came to me in a dream and said I should make collages from one of his images.
The image in your collages is a Mapplethorpe photo of a girl named Ada. Tell me about her.
I met Ada in the summer of 1982. She was walking down 8th Street with an old friend of mine from Chicago, this Puerto Rican girl named Margie. She yelled out, “Hi-Fi!” which was my old nickname from back home, and I turned around and said, “Margie!” And she said, “Oh, it’s Cita now, as in mamacita.” She had a blond mohawk and Ada was bald and rail thin. I thought, “What a look!” I was headed over to Robert’s and I invited them to come along. He photographed both of them that day. Later that summer, the girls were living in Queens and I heard that both of them got pregnant at the same time. They disappeared. That day is a special memory for me and I’ve always loved that image. Robert did too.
How did you meet Robert Mapplethorpe?
Oh, everyone knows that story. It’s old and gray and dusty.
I love that story and I want to hear it again.
Fine, we met in 1982 because I had just gotten out of the Navy and was living in the West Village, the hub of gay activity. Christopher Street was the center of the universe if you were a fag. I would see Robert around and check him out because he was a good-looking cat.
Who cruised who first?
We cruised each other. We would look at each other and finally one day he gave me his number. I called him up that night and he invited me out for dinner. We met at the Pink Teacup and then we never stopped seeing each other.
Ada (b), 2007, by Jack Walls
Wait, I thought you told me that you met in an ice-cream parlor.
Well, I saw him around for a while before we actually met. Eventually he came up to me and handed me his business card, which just said “Robert Mapplethorpe, photographer.”
I love that story because you told me that it was the middle of summer and he was wearing full leather and getting ice cream.
Yeah, it was 99 degrees out and he had on those motorcycle boots that go all the way up your leg. Eating a big waffle cone. I’ll tell you he had a great look. He was the most amazing-looking fucking beautiful boyfriend I’ve ever had. The best boyfriend ever. Let me tell you something, I loved Robert. Still to this very day.
When I look at pictures of Robert, I think, oh my God, if I saw that guy on the street I would have sex with him in a minute.
He was something else, darling. Who would have thought when I met him in 1981 that he would be dead by 1989?
Tell me about the early days of AIDS.
There’s nothing to talk about. It was just sad.
Well, I like talking about it because it’s been a big part of both our lives. Robert and my older brother Michael both got HIV at around the same time. For all we know they could have fucked each other.
Probably not… Maybe they both fucked the same person.
Yeah, my brother was into black guys too, so it is possible. How come Robert never did heroin?
He did it once. But, you know, Robert was bourgeois. Robert was piss-elegant. He didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of junkies.
In 1985 Basquiat painted your portrait for a series he was doing of all the downtown black kids on the scene at the time. What was it like being painted by him? Was it interesting seeing his process?
Nah, we were just smashed on heroin. But I tell you one thing, I had done so much heroin that day that when I left there I got amnesia. It’s the only time that’s ever happened in my life. I was walking around Manhattan and it was snowing and for about four hours I could not remember who or where I was.
Can I ask you about your sex life?
You know what? Honestly, I don’t have a sex life.
You are such a liar.
But see, if I talked about my sex life I would incriminate people.
Well, you don’t have to use their names.
Yeah, but it’s not even that important. I mean, you suck a dick, you suck a dick.
INTERVIEWED BY RYAN MCGINLEY
JACK WALLS: A GLOSSARY
Balloons by Ryan McGinley
“The Only Thing Between Us Is Air and Opportunity”
That means ain’t nothing stopping us. It means all systems are GO. Like somebody comes up to me and says, “Hey, Jack, we should hang out sometime,” and I say, “Yeah, that’s cool, ’cause ain’t nothing between us but air and opportunity.” It’s like, yeah, right on. “Trade Alarm”
That’s when you look at someone and you just know they have a huge cock. Instinctively, bells go off. That’s also what you call a “dick face.” When you see somebody and you go, “Oh, they got a big one.” “Don’t Make Me Put My Baby Down”
That’s a ghetto thing. By the time girls are 15 years old they got babies, so they’re walking around the hood with a baby on their hip and they’re getting into fights and that’s the ultimate threat: “Don’t make me put my baby down!”
“Clock the Basket”
Again, look at the basket. There’s a lot of basket sayings. And packages. Every day is like Christmas for me, darling! “Features Balls”
That’s when you look at somebody’s basket and you can tell it’s mostly balls. “Ghetto Deluxe”
That’s when you go to someone’s dinner party and you just know all the food on the table is gotten with food stamps. Like, a cheese truck used to roll up in the hood and people would run out to it and they would give you these big pieces of government cheese. Every party you went to had grilled-cheese platters and speakers turned outside the window but locked safe inside the house. That’s ghetto deluxe!
“Even People in Hell Need Ice Water”
No, no, you got it phrased wrong. It’s like when people go, “Hey, Jack, I want this, I want that,” and you just tell them, “Yeah, people in hell want ice water”—you ain’t getting it! “Stinkyfoot Junkie”
Most junkies have notoriously stinky feet because they’re always walking around looking for dope. Especially back in the day, the drug spots were always moving. You had to do a lot of walking around for heroin if the main spot was closed. That hallway on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B, that was the spot. New York was paradise for a junkie back then. “Motherfucker I Will Slap the Shit Out of You Right Now”
Because sometimes you have to represent. Because before I slap the shit out of a person I’m gonna let them know that that’s what I’m about to do. I don’t like to get physical but I can.
“No Bitches Just Niggas”
All cats, no hos. “Basket Picnic”
Hahaha, that means you see somebody with a big package—it’s a basket picnic! You get it, don’t you? Listen, I’m drunk half the time. These things I say, I don’t even know I say. I can’t think about it, I just talk. “Potential Dick Flow”
That’s like, what are the chances you’re gonna get laid or not. You dig?
“What Did My Pussy Ever Do to You?”
That’s from a Bobby Garcia porno. A marine is fucking him and the guy is screaming, “Oh my pussy, you’re destroying my pussy! What did my pussy ever do to you, you treat it so bad!” “Sacrifice the Relationship”
Say you know a cat, and you’re good friends, and it gets to the point where you go, he’s my friend, but I think he’s hot, now do I wanna make this thing sexual and end the friendship if he’s not a fag? Are you gonna sacrifice the relationship because you’re a horny fag or are you gonna respect this individual?
“Smile Now Cry Later”
That’s an old song by Sunny and the Sunliners. We call them gangbanging songs because that’s what we listened to when we were teenagers and in gangs. I stopped listening to all that old music until I told Ryan about it and he became obsessed with the whole genre and went and found each and every song. That’s one thing I love about him. I’ll just mention the stupidest thing in passing and suddenly a week later he’ll know everything about it.