Even before the movie, Cool “Disco” Dan was famous.
The shy young man was the most celebrated graffiti tagger in D.C. His signature, brilliant in its simplicity, seemed to be everywhere. On buses and storefronts, abandoned buildings and alleys. It appeared in gravity-defying spots on bridges and roofs. And yet, for so long he was invisible. We were intrigued by his defiance, his boldness and tenacity, and by the way that he was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
You didn’t need to know anything about graffiti culture to recognize his tag. If you moved through D.C. during the ’80s, even if you rode the Red Line just once, you surely saw the funky block letters: Cool “Disco” Dan. Until a 1991 Washington Post profile, which he later regretted, few knew that his real name was Danny Hogg. A different level of celebrity came with the 2013 release of Joseph Pattisall and Roger Gastman’s documentary The Legend Of Cool “Disco” Dan, which celebrated his legacy and used his life as a window into D.C.’s turbulent ’80s.
Dan, who died last week at age 47 due to complications from diabetes, was a true D.C. icon, and for some, this loss ranks almost right up there with the passing of Chuck Brown and Marion Barry, beloved figures whose names conjure an era that is gone and can never be again. (Imagine, for one brilliant moment, a Cool “Disco” Dan tag on one of the pretentiously named upscale apartment towers that now occupy our considerably duller gentrified town.)
With his tagging, Dan took the go-go tradition of bands greeting audience members by name and reset it in a different, larger venue. As he won broader recognition, he inspired the generation of taggers that came behind him. There is no doubt that he was ahead of his time.
“To me, the way that people now are obsessing with selfies and being seen and being known, all that started back then with Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” says Rare Essence guitarist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson. Dan was an RE fan, and Whiteboy remembers nights when the band greeted him during their set. “With us doing all the shout-outs all these years, Dan figured out a way to give himself the ultimate shout-out—by branding his name on every billboard, abandoned building, and bridge overpass in the area,” he says.
Within the DMV graffiti community, Dan’s work was viewed as a benchmark. “Being a graffiti writer, one of your top priorities is getting your name out,” says the tagger who goes by Cert. “If you were writing at that time and you met Dan, it would mean the world to you if he said, ‘I know your name—I’ve seen you up.’”
Some believe that he may have earned grudging respect from the police. For all those tags, Dan was detained only a few times, reports Gastman, and served a short sentence in Montgomery County. “A lot of police knew him and would give him a pass,” says Gastman. “Even the cops got it.”
During the ’80s, Reagan’s federal government exhibited little concern for the well being of a city that did not, in its view, deserve the autonomy of statehood. At the time, Dan’s illegal graffiti felt like a kind of countercultural rebellion against the complacency of Reagan’s federal government.
Or maybe not.
Because here’s the thing about Cool “Disco” Dan: In part because of the economy of his style, his tags meant different things to different people. Those three words invited subjective interpretations, which in themselves reveal something about the people who held them.
For Michael Horsley, a local photographer who devoted many hours to documenting the city’s streets during the late ’80s, Dan’s writing suggested artistic freedom. “I think his work symbolized this universal need to be acknowledged,” says Horsley. “He represented a basic need to express yourself… I thought there was a sense of humor about it: Yeah, I was there. I climbed up this wall, this tower, this fire escape, and I got it.
“You gotta respect the work that he did,” adds Horsley. “In a way, he kind of gave us an identity.”
For Bowie State associate professor Tewodross Melchishua Williams, whose visual culture course on hip-hop aesthetics includes a study of Dan, his tags signified a deliberate defiance. “For those of us who grew up here, he’s always going to be a symbol of resistance,” says Williams. “He was about speaking your truth. … He was in many ways about challenging the system, the local government and police and also the federal side of D.C.” Ned Needham
Williams came up in Prince George’s County, and as a teen he saw the ubiquitous tags as a gateway to understanding urban culture. “This was the age of Barry and Reaganism, and the impact of drugs, violence, and poverty in D.C. in the late ’80s,” he adds. “Dan definitely spoke to those muted voices of many people here in the DMV who were not being heard by the establishment, those who were neglected and left aside.”
Initially for Go-Go Fitness founder Dani Tucker, Cool “Disco” Dan was a provocative and exciting mystery. “We used to have these debates and intellectual conversations about him. First of all, was he a brother? Was he white? Because a brother can’t get there, do that, and get away with it. Is he carrying a ladder with him? How the hell did he get on this bridge? On this side of the Coliseum? He had to walk the tracks to get to this side of the building. And he didn’t get caught? That made him a legend. He was like a Batman to me,” she says.
Later, for Tucker, who grew up in Southeast, his tags came to represent something far more essential: an example to survive by. “We were living through the craziest time, with the city under siege and 400 murders a year. People were dropping; our friends from school were going down. Go-Go and Cool ‘Disco’ Dan were the things that kept us normal,” she says. “They were our way of saying that those of us who are still here, we’re going to make it, no matter what you see,” she continues. “Everybody counted us all out, like there was nothing good coming out of D.C.
“But Cool ‘Disco’ Dan spoke to us about his commitment to keep doing what he was doing, no matter what was going on in the city. You saw this brother just like yourself. I was scared to go out at night, but I didn’t hide in the house. I was still in school, working my job. I’m gonna keep pressing because this is what this brother was doing, and he didn’t stop. That’s what I always saw in him. If he was pressing, I’m pressing. It was that simple. And we made it.”
Born in Boston but raised in Capitol Heights and Southeast D.C., Dan came out of the culture of go-go regulars who were tagging—What’s Up Woody, Gangster George, Lisa of The World, Tonya F, and Cool Calm Chuck. His “Disco” nickname, given to him by a class bully, was derived from a minor character in the TV sitcom What’s Happening!! who bested Rerun in a dance contest. Dan’s tags first started showing up 1984, and soon he was everywhere, moving from markers to spray paint cans. He also drew stylized cartoon figures, but he was always best known for his tag.
Before long his tags were multiplying so fast that people wondered whether there was more than one Cool “Disco” Dan. Much of his work seemed to have been meticulously planned. “There was one tag by Union Station, which you wouldn’t see unless you were in an Amtrak train pulling out at two miles an hour through the train yards,” says longtime D.C. journalist John Curran. “I’d be on the train thinking that this guy is getting his tag seen by thousands of people trapped in a train going two miles an hour. That was not accidental… But it didn’t feel like vandalism. It never seemed bad, stupid, evil, or ugly. It was artsy; it was funny. It seemed almost optimistic to me.”
By Dan’s own account, street drugs and the hustler’s cash stacks never appealed to him. But as his community was ravaged by the crack epidemic, he faced his own daunting challenges. His father had died when Dan was 13, and in some way, Dan never fully recovered from that. As he reached his teens, he struggled with mental illness. His schooling ended with seventh grade, and there were stints in mental institutions here and in Texas. He told the Post that he had been diagnosed “with personality disorder, bipolar, and schizophrenia.”
People who actually knew Dan, his friends and family, describe him as shy and reserved, quiet until he knew you. He was passionate about the things that interested him—go-go and boxing, and tagging, of course. Perhaps significantly, he was fascinated by celebrity and ghosts.
Pattisall first met Dan in 1996, when he spotted Dan selling go-go PA tapes in a park by F Street NW. They talked for a while and it seemed to Pattisall that Dan lacked a stable living situation at that time, and was possibly homeless. Pattisall was carrying a Super 8 camera that day, and filmed his first interview with Dan.
That footage was later included in the documentary he made with Gastman, a project both describe as deeply important. “We wanted to cement his legacy and we wanted to show him that people cared,” says Gastman. Dan also figured prominently in the catalogue that accompanied the Pump Me Up: D.C. Subcultures of the 1980s exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art that same year.
As time passes and gentrification continues, the legend around Cool “Disco” Dan takes on an added meaning. “His tag became like the signature of our culture,” says go-go historian Kato Hammond. “As the landscape changes in D.C. and a lot of our culture seems like it’s being erased, people are going to hold onto it even more fondly.”
In 1991, the Corcoran acquired one of Dan’s tags that was salvaged from H Street Northeast. It also acquired two of his drawings. Dan’s work was included in two subsequent Corcoran shows. The Corcoran has since closed, and those two drawings, works on paper titled “Klepto Kid” and “Indo Smoke,” are in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. The salvaged piece—enameled spray paint, poster board, and staples on plywood—is part of a larger group of Corcoran works that were not accessioned by the NGA. It will most likely be distributed by the Corcoran board to another area museum in the near future.
Friends say that for Dan, that kind of recognition was both gratifying and unnerving. He did not show up for the premiere screenings in April, 2013, but he did appear at a second round later that year. “He just didn’t have it in him at the time. I think being around everyone was difficult,” says Gastman. “But he was happy and excited when he did come out… Actually being put on that stage, I think meant a lot to him.”
Both Gastman and Pattisall maintained a relationship with Dan following the making of the film, and Pattisall, who lives in the D.C. area, saw him frequently and helped as much as Dan would allow. “We’ve continued to be here for Dan after the movie as much or as little as he would let us,” he says.
Pattisall speaks eloquently of Dan and the experiences they shared. “Normally, we celebrate these lives after people have passed on, but he was able to be here for it,” he says. “I’m glad that Dan was able to see the movie while he was alive, and that he was able to have that experience. It’s a bittersweet thing.
“Dan might be the most inspiring person I have ever known,” he adds. “Some kid from Southeast D.C. who had nothing but a marker and a can of paint made a difference, influenced the most powerful city in the world and has left a legacy.”
A tribute to Dan, who is survived by sister La Tonya Watson and mother Denise Womack, will be held on the morning of Aug. 19 at the 9:30 Club. Visit cooldiscodan.com for more info.