Cool “Disco” Dan deserves a statue in the District. The graffiti writer, whose tag was ubiquitous in the metropolitan era in the 1980s and ’90s, represents a lot more than just a time gone by, a time some remember more fondly than others. He was a personal testament to the struggles of the city and the people who lived here, and his staggering visibility, even if illegal, was a steadying hand for many when we had few others.
Dan’s glorious tag was just as much of a constant as the memorials on the Mall, which Washingtonians usually only visited when tourists came to town.
Beyond that, his tag — Cool “Disco” Dan — is now analogous with a time that is often forgotten or casually misrepresented in folklore about the city.
That’s the world that Roger Gastman and Joseph Pattisall take us back to in their new movie, “The Legend Of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” set for release Feb. 23 at AFI Silver Theatre. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of the blog post incorrectly called the movie “The Legend of ‘Disco’ Dan.) It tells the story of the District that only those who were there care to remember — what life was really like if you refused to be afraid to live and play in the “murder capital.”
Indeed, some will have you believe that D.C. jumped from a beautiful, black metropolis straight into a cold world of gentrification, marked only by the sound of dollars and cents adding up in developers’ bank accounts.
But for many, it’s that part in between that will forever define us, no matter what your race, how much money you grew up with or where you lived in the city. Cool “Disco” Dan bridged all those worlds.
“Dan’s tag was all over D.C., from Friendship Heights to Takoma Park to Southeast, Union Station, F Street — it was everywhere,” Gastman, executive producer of the film, said. “It’s not like just lawyers would see it or just people who lived in Southeast would see it or just people in the suburbs would see it.”
The truth is that as a young person in the Marion Barry-Sharon Pratt years, the city was a pretty hopeless place. But while the crack era was claiming lives and families, there were two music movements that existed and thrived in the same place and managed to transcend racial lines: go-go, which was black at its roots, and hard core. Although on the surface they seemed like racially segregated genres, they were not.
Dan was one of those who lived in both worlds. His cultural interconnectivity laid the groundwork for kids like me to want to check out new things and explore new heights. And Dan marked his tag in locations that seemed impossible, including atop the old Washington Coliseum. That effort was not lost on a lot of young minds. If Dan could do it, so could I.
These subcultures kept the city alive back when it seemed so many things were destined to kill it, and Cool “Disco” Dan represented all of that. By 1997, Dan was selling go-go live show tapes by day and painting graffiti all over the city with his punk-rock friends by night. That’s as D.C. as it gets.
“Everyone’s got a different story. You’re just a guy riding the Metro and you see Dan, he’s a part of your story,” Pattisall, the director, said. “If you’re a guy going to hard core shows or if you’re a skateboarder, Dan was an icon or a mascot for pretty much every culture and every walk of life of a person.”
The movie is part of a wave of events that take a look back at the era. Next Sunday’s DC Funk-Punk Throwback Jam at 9:30 Club and the upcoming Corcoran exhibit “Pump Me Up” are liable to be long trips down memory lane for older Washingtonians who remember when the city’s art community didn’t get so much mainstream love, but thrived nonetheless.
“It was a tight knit community and it was great. We’re just really happy to have to do a 3-part weekend of events. Punk and go-go bands playing back to back like they haven’t in 20 plus years.” Gastman said.
But there’s an underlying sentiment that I couldn’t help but recall after seeing the movie on Dan: Coming of age in those days is part of the reason I still live here. Dan embodied the artistically integrated culture of DC that is often overlooked. It’s the legend of guys like him that shaped my love for my hometown.
It breaks my heart that Dan is still effectively a ghost, even to the people who know him. Mental illness and homelessness have been a part of his life through all the so-called glory, another indicator of just how real and dedicated he’s always been to his craft.
“What makes me, myself, Cool “Disco” Dan a legend in D.C. is because I’ve been true to the game. It was my art, that really kept me alive,” Dan says in the movie.
And though he’d never say it, I will. His art helped keep all of us alive in one way or another, and that’s something we should never forget.
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC.
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