Artists are fired up over doughnut shop’s use of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan’s name
By Maura Judkis,
When a Dupont Circle doughnut shop changed its name Thursday, less than 24 hours before its planned opening, it was either an overreaction or just deserts.
The shop at 2029 P St. NW was preparing to open Friday at 10 a.m. with the name Cool Disco Donut, until Facebook posts started rolling in. What owner Aaron Gordon says he saw as an unofficial tribute to D.C. graffiti icon Cool “Disco” Dan, others saw as a crass appropriation of a living artist’s name and work.
“I hope you all support my new business venture Ben’s Chilly Bowl, serving fro-yo and paying homage to an unaffiliated D.C. icon!” wrote one Facebook commenter.
“Check out my new brownie shop, it’s called Chuck Brown Brownie House,” wrote another. “Now go-go get those brownies!”
“It was such a playful, fun name. . . . It reminded me of my childhood,” said Gordon, who grew up near Eastern Market and remembered seeing the artist’s eponymous tags on buildings and near Metro tracks as a kid. “The [store] name was never so much supposed to be about Cool Disco Dan. . . . It was about the culture and not necessarily about him.”
After a day of overwhelmingly negative feedback, Gordon changed the name to Zeke’s D.C. Donutz, after his middle name. The “Cool Disco Donut” mural by the door will go; the graffiti interior will stay. And so will some of the hurt feelings, at least for a little while, among a community that is extremely protective of Cool “Disco” Dan (real name: Dan Hogg), their onetime rebel hero.
‘A certifiable D.C. legend’
Cool “Disco” Dan is a symbol to people who lived in the District in the ’80s. He is Chocolate City. He is the era of Marion Barry’s “[Expletive] set me up.” He is fearlessness. He was “a certifiable D.C. legend,” wrote Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson in 1991. When the city’s streets had a harsher edge, Cool “Disco” Dan was a phantom, his tag omnipresent. He told Hendrickson that he turned to graffiti when many of his peers had turned to drugs, and in doing so, made his mark on a city in transition.
“Almost always this is an after-midnight man. He finds a wall. He Hancocks it. He’s gone,” Hendrickson wrote.
While some of Dan’s tags have been preserved, many are gone, either because of cleanup efforts or the building demolition that can come along with gentrification. You can still see them riding Metro’s Red Line from Union Station to Takoma Park, where some remain along the tracks.
Soon, you’ll be able to see many more of them — the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s,” a show devoted to D.C.’s graffiti and music culture in that era, goes on display Feb. 23 and features many photos of Dan’s work. The show was curated by Roger Gastman, who also produced a documentary with filmmaker Joseph Pattisall that screens the following day at AFI Silver: “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan.”
The confluence of these two events made February the best and worst time to open a Cool “Disco” Dan-inspired doughnut shop. Once it got out that Gordon’s shop was unaffiliated with Dan, his friends and admirers made their displeasure known. Asad Walker, also known as the graffiti artist Ultra, started a Facebook page called “The Society for the Preservation of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” and threatened to picket the store opening.
“To a guy on the street, his name is everything, particularly for a graffiti artist,” Walker said. “And to have it diminished and changed into the name of a doughnut shop is not really very respectful to me.”
Steve McPherson, a.k.a. DJ Stereo Faith, was among those who posted messages on the shop’s Facebook page.
“I don’t think they realized that they were dealing with a bunch of people from the underground, graffiti artists and punk rockers like myself, who would continue via various mediums to reach out to them — whether it was for a name change or compensation to Cool ‘Disco’ Dan — until something happened,” he said.
It’s called “swagger-jacking” — a term that describes the cultural appropriation of African American history for commercial purposes, which Stephen A. Crockett Jr. recently wrote about for The Root. It’s most predominant on U Street, he said, where bars and restaurants have names that were inspired by famous African Americans, such as Marvin (after Marvin Gaye) and Eatonville (inspired by Zora Neale Hurston).
But Cool Disco Donut is not the same, Pattisall said. “This is not 100 years from now, this is not Marvin Gaye, this is a living person.”
Gastman said: “How [Gordon] was trying to respect the community ended up backfiring and disrespecting the community.”
‘A sign of the times’
“Cool ‘Disco’ Dan, to me, was a symbol of what was everywhere,” said Gordon admiringly, framed by a bouquet of “Congratulations!” mylar balloons as he sipped a coffee Thursday in his doughnut shop. “It was a sign of the times. It went along with the counterculture, the underground of D.C.”
Dan’s tag reminded him of his favorite go-go bands growing up. In a restaurant scene that Gordon, 39 — the owner of Red Velvet Cupcakery and Drafting Table, among other local cafes — felt was too serious, he wanted his next shop to be fun. He tried to get in touch with Cool “Disco” Dan, but had trouble tracking him down.
Gordon says he had no idea that the Corcoran show and documentary were also opening this month. He says he even suggested working together with Gastman and catering his events, but Gastman didn’t want his project associated with the store.
Gordon was eating dinner Wednesday night when he found out about the negative buzz on Facebook through his social-media manager. By Thursday morning, after a discussion with artist Juan Pineda, who did the graffiti art inside the shop, Gordon decided to change the name to Zeke’s D.C. Donutz. On Thursday, Gordon was scrambling to change all of his signs and his Web presence — and take down the store’s Facebook page. A big disco ball mural that bore the old name was slated to be painted over that afternoon.
He’s proud of his doughnuts, which are gourmet— especially the passion-fruit-glazed and Mexican chocolate varieties. They sell for $2.30 to $2.70, and they’re about twice the size of a Krispy Kreme, in a dozen savory and sweet flavors. One is another homage to an ’80s superstar — the vanilla glazed, or “Vanilla Ice.”
“This is just a doughnut shop, for God’s sakes. If people take it too hard, I’m sorry, and we’re fixing it,” Gordon said. “We’re serving great doughnuts. The name doesn’t matter at the end of the day. . . . We didn’t even open yet, so I wouldn’t call it a name change, I’d call it a name upgrade.”
Hard to find
Cool “Disco” Dan hasn’t said publicly whether he liked the idea of a doughnut shop in his name. He was unable to be reached by the time this story went to print, because he does not have a fixed address.
“Unfortunately, Dan has chosen to live his life on the streets, even though he’s had multiple offers of help, and continues to have those offers and options of places to stay,” Gastman said. Gastman and Pattisall have reached out to Dan through a friend to tell him about the shop but have not heard back. Walker also tried contacting Dan by phone but said that he wasn’t sure if Dan’s phone was turned on.
“You kind of wait for Dan to contact you,” Pattisall said. The tough times that have befallen Dan are addressed in the documentary. The filmmakers invited him to the premiere of the documentary on Feb. 23 at the AFI Silver, but they’re not sure if he’ll attend. “He knows that we’re hoping he will come,” Gastman said.
Still, some of Dan’s aggrieved fans are hoping that good things will come out of the graffiti artist’s publicity from the show, documentary and doughnut shop. Walker said now that the Society for the Preservation of Cool “Disco” Dan no longer has to worry about the doughnut shop’s name, he would turn his attention to using the page to organize some aid for Dan’s housing situation.
McPherson said he posted on Facebook a hope that Zeke’s would “legitimately commission Cool ‘Disco’ Dan for a proper piece [of art] — that would sort of make things right,” he said.
Gastman says he talked with Gordon about giving Dan’s family a share in profits.
Pattisall had another idea: “If [Gordon] really wants to make things right, he could offer Dan a job. Dan would love a kitchen job.” Dan has worked in kitchens as a dishwasher before, Gastman said.
Gordon says he would be happy to consider any of those things, once Dan resurfaces.
“He’s a great symbol of my generation, and whether it be to hire him for a mural or hire him for the space or give him a profit share — all of those things would have been great,” Gordon said. He says he welcomes Dan and any other graffiti artists to the shop, where he’s reserved a special space for them — a blank wall above the seating area, where artists will be invited to tag their names.