Cool ‘Disco’ Dan opens up about his battle with mental illness


Danny Hogg (aka Cool “Disco” Dan) signs posters after a screening of a documentary about his life. (Rosina Teri Memolo)
October 28, 2013

“There’s something I want to say, this is really important.”

Danny Hogg, the iconic D.C. graffiti artist known as Cool “Disco” Dan, is speaking, which is noteworthy. What he’s speaking about is even more remarkable.

He pulls out a piece of paper and reads carefully from the sheet. The part highlighted in yellow.

“I’ve been diagnosed with personality disorder, bipolar and schizophrenia. And people who don’t understand me, I lash out at people when I feel threatened or disrespected. And it caused a bunch of people to dislike me, due to people not understanding what I have is a mental illness. So I’m on medication to keep from having outbursts. But due to me having outbursts when not taking my medication, it caused about 70 percent of people in my life to dislike me.”

Hogg, whose tags primarily along Metro’s Red Line helped define the city’s visual landscape in the late ’80s and early ’90s, is no longer an outgoing person. He has no permanent home. And he’s also a movie star.

A documentary about his life and art, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” introduced Hogg, 43, to a new generation when it was released this year. It also served as a reminder of a very different D.C. of a few decades ago. And it thrust Hogg back into the spotlight, one he tentatively stepped into two weekends ago when the film screened at AFI Silver in Silver Spring. He watched the movie among fans and later signed autographs for them. But it wasn’t easy.

“It’s really hard for me to be around people due to my anxiety. It’s just one of those things where I have to seek treatment on a daily basis or I’ll just go into kind of like a violent rage,” Hogg says, adding that he sees a therapist weekly. This conversation takes place at a friend’s house in Prince George’s County, where Hogg is staying temporarily. He’s accompanied by Joseph Pattisall, one of the filmmakers behind the documentary. Hogg’s illness is mentioned in the movie but in a vague manner. That was in deference to his privacy and also out of respect for the difficulty of his situation. But he speaks in no uncertain terms about what his life is like.

“I keep a lot of anger bottled up inside me. And it comes out when I have a confrontation with somebody. I may overreact to something that’s not a big deal,” Hogg says.

He rarely makes eye contact while speaking.

“Exercising helps me a lot. It helps me to be a better person. Most people exercise, they burn off calories; I’m burning off stress and depression. And I like to meditate a lot.”

Hogg is likable as he speaks straightforwardly about his struggles with disease, fame and the city. He says his life became far less stable as his illness took hold. Painting is not something he plans to get back to. He likes the murals in the city that he's familiar with from the Internet, but it’s an art that’s behind him.

He has a sharp command of what sets him off and why.

“When I’m not taking [meds], I just feel on edge,” he says. “I feel like I’m going to attack somebody. I know I have to be in a mellow area to keep focused. . . . I’m just trying to be a better person, but a lot of people don’t understand me who don’t know me. And may label me as a troublemaker and it’s not like that. It’s just that I have a mental illness.”

One thing he likes a lot is television. It’s where he got his nickname and tag (it comes from an episode of ’70s sitcom “What’s Happening”), and he enjoys it as a form of escapism.

“I like all reality shows,” he says. “It just reminds me of like, an anti-documentary about them. I like to understand people, because it makes me realize that we all got things going on in our life. Sometimes, I always think it’s just me that’s dealing with certain situations in life, so when I get to really see these people behind the scenes, it makes me realize I’m not alone as far as going through daily crisis and stuff like that. It makes me feel like, okay, I’m not alone.”

When “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” screened two weekends ago, he was far from alone. Some in attendance were repeat viewers, having caught it earlier this year. Others brought their children for a history lesson. But most of all, people showed up to see Cool “Disco” Dan. And to get his iconic lefthanded signature on a poster or DVD.

“The chance to actually speak to him and tell him, ‘Man you really brightened up the city,’ that was something,” says Paula O’Keefe, who moved to the area in the ’80s from Boston. “When we first saw the film, [we understood] he was very reclusive. He was not here and I didn’t know if we’d ever get to actually see him in person. But here he is, he survived all this,” she says.

Tahar Achour, 12, is there with his mom and having the time of his life. “I learned a lot about go-go, all these taggers and what it meant to D.C. What was D.C. and what it is now.”

How was meeting Dan? “It was awesome.”

What are you going to do with your poster? “I’m gonna keep it forever.”

Most important to Hogg, however, is seeing the old faces. One of those old faces is a graffiti writer who goes by SMK. He is happy to see Hogg, whom he’s known since the ’90s. SMK says that at the time, mental illness was not something on his mind.

“Dan has spent the night at my house a couple times. . . . Didn’t see any effect whatsoever. Little [things]. Sometimes, he would just walk away from you, and just be gone. He wouldn’t say goodbye. But you accepted that. That’s how he was,” SMK says. Acceptance came with the territory.

But the man who is literally by Hogg’s side the entire weekend is Peter Green. The two met at a psychiatric treatment center in San Marcos, Tex., as young men in the ’80s. Ask Hogg if there is anyone he considers a friend, and Green is the only person he names.

As Hogg signs autographs, Green makes sure everyone spelled their names clearly on notecards, so Hogg would know who to make each autograph out to. Sounds like a simple task, but it’s invaluable.

“If you wasn’t there, I would have been panicking,” Hogg tells him after the show.

“I’m proud of Danny,” Green says. “For him to come out like this and actually be in public, that’s a big step for him. As well as me. It helped the mental part of what we go through. We’re not socially interactive people,” Green, a father of four, says. “But you can cover something [up] by just doing it. I think that’s kind of what happened to us.”

At dinner that night, Hogg orders combination fried rice. He is the only one who finishes all his food. On the way back to the theater for the last screening of the night, Hogg looks up and sees his name in lights, scrolling across the theater’s marquee.

He finally cracks a beaming smile. Green asks him what he’s going to do next in his life and career.

“I don’t know, man,” Hogg reflects. “Maintain growing.”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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