Spray of Reckoning: How Cool “Disco” Dan Became a D.C. Mascot
Through its streetcar days, its riots, its crack epidemic, and its many-flavored scandals, Washington has remained a town of hoary legends. Men’s names, etched into marble; dead generals astride horses, gazing stonily into rush-hour traffic—for generations, these cold and glory-drunk statues have passed as public art in the District. Ask a passerby to connect a name to a chiseled face, and you’ll get a sheepish shrug.
There’s one Washington figure whose name was all anyone knew of him, though, at least for a while, and few could traverse D.C.’s neighborhoods without learning it. Feds riding downtown on the Red Line. Tourists, the minute they unglued their eyes from their crumpled maps. Hustlers. Go-go stars. Schoolchildren. Cops, definitely. Shop owners. There was hardly a soul in town who didn’t know the name of Cool “Disco” Dan.
For a long stretch during the 1980s and 1990s, Dan earned a reputation as the city’s most prolific tagger. Through D.C.’s worst violence-scarred years, when official Washington seemed ever segregated from city residents, his marks let you know you were still in the nation’s capital. He had rivals, but no other tagger sprayed his name as relentlessly or as adventurously as Cool “Disco” Dan; for that, the troubled kid originally from Boston became an anti-legend amid founding fathers whose legacy, to many District residents, seemed to impart only statues. Now, Dan is getting his own kind of immortalization: He’s the subject of a new documentary, The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan, and he’s a part of a soon-to-open exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s.” (Washington City Paper is a media sponsor of the show.)
Roger Gastman, executive producer of the movie, curator of the exhibit, and creative director and editor of an accompanying book also called Pump Me Up, grew up in Bethesda in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like Cool “Disco” Dan—also known as Danny Hogg, whose last name rhymes with “vogue”—Gastman also picked up a spray can in his teens. Hogg came of age in the early D.C. go-go scene; Gastman preferred hardcore punk. But the two met in 1992 or 1993, and Gastman later began to go about the business of cataloging and promoting Hogg’s legacy. Along the way, he ended up putting together perhaps the most comprehensive multimedia history of D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s ever assembled.
While the independently produced The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan ostensibly tells Hogg’s story, the tagger—a kind of omnipresent figure who appeared to exist everywhere but nowhere in particular—helps tell a connected set of stories. “While Dan wasn’t at every location, or in everything we talked about in the film, he was so much a part of everything,” says Gastman. “He was in every neighborhood, and he became a really easy center.”
At times, Hogg disappears from the film’s narrative completely, but he’s still there: As he begins to explore its go-go scene, the filmmakers take off into the culture, unfurling its stories and shining a light on the growing bonds between go-go and graffiti in the 1980s. In came the neighborhood crews whose names were shouted out in go-go’s concert halls; the brutal rape and beating death of Catherine Fuller, a mother of six, for which eight members of the storied Eighth and H crew were convicted of first-degree murder; the crushing blow of crack cocaine, which killed or imprisoned the city’s youth by the thousands. Yet Hogg somehow avoided that violent path, mostly thanks to his commitment to tagging—and his unspecified mental-health issues and periods of homelessness, which kept him on but very much off D.C.’s streets.
The film balances those interwoven histories, despite its creators’ snowball approach: After the documentary began to germinate in 2004, Hogg found more and more people for the filmmakers to interview, and Gastman and director Joseph Pattisall followed his leads, tossing in more perspectives. It resulted in a film that jumps from local musical heroes (Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Ian MacKaye) to politicians (Marion Barry) to D.C. police and neighborhood-crew leaders, sometimes within the same segment, without devolving into a muddled personality soup.
“Pump Me Up” grew in much the same amoebic way. Gastman had shepherded Hogg’s work into the Corcoran before, and as the film came together, he approached the museum about an associated show. “We started talking about a way to do something in conjunction with the opening of the movie, which might mean displaying our Cool ‘Disco’ Dan works,” says Sarah Newman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, with whom Gastman worked closely on the show. “Then it just started getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
So instead of a show about Cool “Disco” Dan or graffiti, “Pump Me Up” engulfs D.C.’s subcultural life: go-go, punk, and street art, their stories told with Globe posters, album covers, original artwork, a chunk of wall—reclaimed from H Street NE—with Dan’s familiar tag scrawled on its surface. Yet questions of integrity, like those that arose when New York gallery curators began snatching up graffiti art in the 1980s, inevitably surfaced. “It neuters it a bit,” Newman says of street art in galleries, “and I didn’t like the idea of institutionalizing this work to that extent.” The museum opted to throw the work all over the gallery’s public spaces, as “a kind of defacement of this very pristine Beaux-Arts traditional building,” as Newman puts it.
As even the Corcoran’s space began to fill up, Gastman found himself needing more canvas. “There was so much stuff that I wanted to put in the show in the Corcoran but couldn’t,” he says. So he thought, “Why not make a companion piece to the show?” His idea sprouted into an impressive historical overview: an elegant, 320-page, hardbound supplement brimming with hundreds of images, essays, and recollections.
It all serves to document a time in D.C.’s history that, in the name of economic recovery, has been slowly built over, refurbished, resold, and forgotten. “Time seems to move faster with the Internet, and the past moves behind at a more rapid pace,” writes Henry Rollins, the D.C. punk icon who serves as the film’s narrator, via email. “Things can get buried.” Walk down H Street NE now, where Hogg’s name once emblazoned the crumbling facades of riot-torched buildings, and the tag has been replaced with the trappings of new money—and a new history. Before The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan, Rollins didn’t know much about Hogg, aside from his tag. But he says he felt drawn to the film out of his love for D.C. history and the way in which Pattisall and Gastman wanted to tell it. “This is the D.C. that a lot of people don’t see,” he says.
Cool “Disco” Dan stands in the center of that D.C. This weekend’s blitz of local history lessons—the Corcoran show’s opening on Saturday, Feb. 23; the film’s world premiere at AFI the same day; and the 9:30 Club’s go-go and hardcore reunion show “Funk-Punk Throwdown” Sunday afternoon—depicts him as a thread that ran through D.C.’s connected subcultural worlds. “He meant something to people in hardcore, he meant something to skateboarders, he meant something to go-go people, he meant something to the businessperson that’s riding the Red Line to work every day, he meant something to politicians,” says Pattisall, who also grew up in the area. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is, he crossed your story. And because of that, he’s like the mascot of D.C.”
Top photo: Cool "Disco" Dan in 1994, courtesy Roger Gastman
Bottom photo: Cool "Disco" Dan in 2008, courtesy Adam Amengual