Who Is Cool ‘Disco’ Dan? D.C. Graffiti Legend Opens Up in New Documentary
The graffiti tag "Cool 'Disco' Dan" is connotative of all things D.C. during the 1980s and early 1990s—citywide double-dutch competitions, the politics of then Mayor Marion Barry, the war on drugs and coke kingpin Rayful Edmond III. No part of the city was off-limits to the phantomlike Dan, who dropped tags on just about every overpass, wall, metro tunnel, and Dumpster he could find. In D.C. his presence was ubiquitous, even as his identity was unknown.
"I brought a lot of flavor to the nation's capital and I put on the greatest show on earth," says Dan.
Now, the forces of gentrification have wiped Dan's moniker from the city's surfaces. And still, it seems, the children of the Barry years are wondering what happened to Cool "Disco" Dan. A new documentary, The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan, may offer them some answers.
Known to be a very private person, Dan says he's always been shy. "When I was younger I was very bashful. I had a hard time expressing my thoughts because of my shyness and I didn't speak much, but as I got older I slowly started to break out of my shell, and I started to speak from my heart and through my art," says Dan.
At 21, he talked to Paul Henderickson of the Washington Post, spewing about his origins as Disco Danny; his weapon of choice, the Magic Marker; his constant struggle to stay off the streets; and a brief stint at a private psychiatric treatment center in San Marcos, Texas.
Documentarian Roger Gastman was 14 when he met Dan. Gastman, a Bethesda native and former graffiti artist, immersed himself in D.C.'s graffiti and music scene. "In the late 1990s, I put together a lot of gallery shows, put out a D.C.-based magazine, and published a book on the history of D.C. graffiti called Free Agents," says Gastman.
He included Dan in Free Agents and has worked relationship with him since. Gastman has been working on the documentary for several years, and would like to bring it to the big screen by the end of 2010. However, documenting a world in which given names are rarely used has slowed him down.
"It is an extremely difficult task to gather information and interviews for this film," Gastman says. "Many of the people interviewed are old graffiti writers, gang members, and all we had to go on to find them were their nicknames. We literally had to go into D.C. neighborhoods and ask random people if they had any information about so and so."
Gastman notes that while the film is just about done, he's still working on some final touches. "We have almost finished editing, but we're still looking for a few things like clips from the Fox [news] show City Under Seige, more videos of southeast neighborhoods and crews in the 1980s, and any go-go graffiti photos," says Gastman.
Now 40, Dan is still in the D.C. area, where he lives a quiet and private life. He says he's noticed the shift from the D.C. he knew—a wide-open canvas soundtracked by congo rhythms and call-and-response choruses—to the D.C. of today, diverse yet less concerned with preserving its past.
"Growing up and witnessing the birth of old school go-go music was one of the greatest experiences of my life," Dan says. "Being an artistic person and seeing all the graffiti on the walls, with some of the cartoon characters next to their name, gave me the motivation to do graffiti. In the era today in the nation's capital, it is completely laid back compared to back in the day, when things were really popping off," says Dan.
While filming, Gastman noticed a change, as well. "I realize how quickly people and local history are disappearing in D.C. and how this film will help preserve some of that," he says. He says that while Dan has never driven a car in his life, he knows every inch of the city by heart—which makes him an ideal guide to an earlier chapter in Washington's history. "He has an incredible memory regarding pivotal moments in D.C. history," says Gastman.
Dan says he's comfortable being considered a D.C. legend: "As long as it's positivity and no negativity."
Photos courtesy of R. Rock Enterprises.