Written on the Walls

Roger Gastman sleuthed and salvaged the history of D.C. graffiti


Roger Gastman became record-keeper of D.C.’s graffiti history.

To D.C. kids in the 1990s, graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan was a legend without a face. They didn’t know what he looked like, whether he was alive or dead, or why his simple, handwriting-style tags looked so different from the flashy, painted murals of their peers. What they did know was not to disrespect him by painting over his work.

Roger Gastman was one of those ’90s kids. He missed out on the city’s punk, go-go and graffiti scenes of the ’80s (he was busy being a toddler in Bethesda). But that’s the era he would feel moved to document, the time explored in “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s,” an exhibit, opening Saturday, that he curated for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

At 14, while tagging under the name “Clear,” Gastman met a semiretired Cool “Disco” Dan in graffiti circles and made him a sort of mentor on how to “get up” ­— how to make a name as a graffiti artist.

“He would tell us these stories [about graffiti culture in 1980s D.C.] and we would go, ‘You’re crazy!’ ” says Gastman, now 35. “We found out those stories were all true. Those people were real, those crews were real. As I got a little older, I started finding some other old crew members from the ’80s, other artists, and getting more news from them.”

Along the way, Gastman ended up becoming the unlikely keeper of D.C.’s graffiti history, preserving a culture in which “posterity” was measured in how many weeks a tag survived on a wall.

Gastman — author, onetime teen publisher of the cult magazine “While You Were Sleeping” and a consulting producer on Banksy’s 2010 doc, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — says his conversations with Dan, now 43, were the push for this exhibit, as well as for a related feature-length documentary, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” made with co-producer Joseph Pattisall. (The film will make its sold-out premiere Saturday at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, with a just-added screening March 1.)

“I’ve always been interested in the history of cities,” Gastman says. “And I started realizing there wasn’t much of this scene archived. If someone didn’t start scanning photos, it would be lost.”

Over the years, Gastman amassed a substantial collection of photos, ephemera and original art — including some Cool “Disco” Dan work salvaged from the streets. In 2001, he curated a show called “Free Agents” at the now-defunct Georgetown gallery MoCA. Gastman says Jonathan Binstock, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran at the time, had him donate the Dan pieces, which became part of the permanent collection. After that, “I just kept bugging [the Corcoran] to do an exhibit,” Gastman says. (He credits current curator of contemporary art Sarah Newman, who coordinated the exhibit, with getting the show on the calendar at last.)

Gastman and Pattisall began work on the doc in 2004, playing detective with Dan frequently in tow. It helped that Gastman’s growing collection was more than many of his subjects had seen of their glory days in decades.

“People were suspicious, yes,” he says. “But when you give someone a photo of something they wrote on a wall in 1985, you’re pulling their card in a polite way.”

In the Exhibit
Works in “Pump Me Up” — including “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan at Good Hope Road, Southeast Washington” (2008) and “Lisa of the World” (1985) — reflect D.C.’s distinctive graffiti styles as well as the crews that tagged them:

Go-Go Graffiti: Cool “Disco” Dan and many of the other graffiti artists represented in the show exemplified D.C.’s “go-go graffiti” style. “Go-go graffiti is very rudimentary,” Roger Gastman says. “Almost think of them teaching you perfect handwriting when in elementary school — then with a little flair. If there’s two O’s in your name, you might make them into a face. Or if your name is ‘Gangster George,’ you would do one really big G and write the ‘angster’ and ‘eorge’ next to it, and put a little top hat next to your G.”

The Lady Chronicles: “That photo was probably taken around ’85, at Hechinger Mall right off H Street,” Gastman says. “Her, Go-Go Tonya and Jumpin’ Janet were three of the most well-known female graffiti artists in D.C. in the ’80s — the Lady Chronicles. The Gangster Chronicles were one of the bigger crews, and she was one of the leaders of the Lady Chronicles.”

Tie-In Events
Globe Posters for Posterity: The Baltimore-based Globe Poster Printing Corp. made bright, distinctive posters for go-go and funk shows in D.C. in the ’80s. Roger Gastman has what he estimates is “the largest collection of ’80s go-go Globe posters in existence,” some of which will cover the Corcoran’s rotunda for the exhibit. “If I didn’t dig them up,” he says, “one person would have two and another would have five. They hold value as a collection.” Globe owner Bob Cicero will lead a free talk on the posters at 6:30 p.m. March 6.

Funk-Punk Throwback Jam: Sunday’s D.C. Funk-Punk Throwback Jam at the 9:30 Club will revive an ’80s tradition, mixing funk, go-go and punk acts — including legendary bands Trouble Funk, Scream, Black Market Baby, Junkyard Band, Youth Brigade and Worlds Collide — for an all-day show. (Saturday’s opening party, DJed by Henry Rollins, is sold out.) 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Sun., 3 p.m., $25; 202-265-0930, 930.com. (U Street)

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; Sat. to April 7, $10; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)

 


Mark Andersen (second row, second from left) at Positive Force headquarters in 1989.

Behind the Music: A Personal History
An ’80s punk recalls the ‘salad days’ of hardcore, go-go and musical community

Editor’s Note: Mark Andersen has been a longtime fixture of the D.C. punk scene and is one of the subjects interviewed by Roger Gastman in “The Legend of ‘Cool’ Disco Dan.”

I came to Washington in 1984, a wide-eyed grad student from Montana, a punk-rock Gomer Pyle dropped into a strange, exciting world. I remember I tried to shake hands with a man who mugged me at gunpoint shortly after my arrival. Despite this rough landing, I continued exploring my new home, finding both heartbreak and inspiration.

Crack cocaine had infested the city, igniting a bloody drug war that got D.C. dubbed the “Murder Capital” by decade’s end. Mayor Barry became a poster child for the betrayal of the 1960s idealism of Dr. King. “Homelessness” entered the national lexicon: Dozens died on D.C.’s streets, including Jesse Carpenter, a decorated WWII vet who froze to death across from the White House.

Meanwhile, the homegrown genres of percussion-heavy go-go and manic punk exploded into their own vibrant subcultures. Both shredded the myth that D.C. imported art instead of creating it.

Bad Brains, Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Rites of Spring, E.U., Junkyard Band, Fugazi: The music was a sign of a city fighting back, stretching toward dreams betrayed but never surrendered. The street art of graffiti writers like Cool “Disco” Dan reflected similarly disenfranchised voices straining to be heard, and the work of homeless advocate Mitch Snyder and the Community For Creative Nonviolence challenged us all to act.

This spirit moved me to co-found the punk activist collective Positive Force D.C. in 1985. We organized concerts and other actions to aid the poorest of our city. Today, Positive Force remains a community where music and service come together.

Were those the “Salad Days” that the band Minor Threat sang about? This was a time that changed me and many others for the better, and for good. Those bands are now legendary — museum fodder, even. However, I hope “Pump Me Up” will be a catalyst for passionate art and activism today.

About the Author: Mark Andersen is co-founder of Positive Force (Positiveforcedc.org) and co-author of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital.” He is co-director of the We Are Family Senior Outreach Network.

Shauna Miller is managing editor at the Atlantic's CityLab. You can hit her up on Her.

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Rudi Greenberg · February 20, 2013