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  •   Mark of the Urban Phantom

    By Paul Hendrickson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, October 9, 1991; Page C1

    He's standing there right beside it, bold as brass. The photographer is down nearly on all fours, trying to get the perfect angle. Here come two flatfoots.

    Cool Disco Dan, with a bandanna over his nose. Cool Disco Dan, the phantom urban name scrawler, posing next to one of his "tags." In broad daylight, rush hour.

    "I always wanted to get this wall," he says. "Did it the first time a year ago. About 10 o'clock at night. Then came back a few months later and traced over it. See, I like the way the buses stop right over there. All kinds of people can look out and see it."

    Officer H.B. Burton (or that's what's on the nameplate above his badge) is three feet away now. He and his partner study this little tableau. Their visages are knotting.

    "You the one did that?" says the policeman. There's something half-incredulous in it.

    "Yo, Dan!" calls out a man in a car, holding at a light. He sticks his head out the window, cocks his thumb, roars, tears off.

    "Yeah, but I've been arrested for it already."

    "That's you?" the cop says again. It's as if he hasn't heard. He's pointing at the graffiti with his nightstick. He seems in a strange suspension. Along with incredulity, there may now be something else, the barest whiff, in the policeman's tone: awe. If this is the real Dan, the guy's a certifiable D.C. legend. He's everywhere, illicitly of course.

    "Yeah, but it was a long time ago, officer. It's not recent."

    The lawman shakes his head. He's become a disgusted parent. What's to do? He hasn't caught somebody in the splash act of painting his name on a building that doesn't belong to him. This may not even be the guy, just some poseur. The two policemen, still head-shaking, move off down H Street, through other diversions of the wicked city.

    After they're out of earshot Cool Disco Dan says, "Thought for a minute I was going to have to get the hell out of Dodge." Little bubbles of sweat have popped out on his forehead.

    There are some serious issues to confront here. This is, after all, someone engaged in doing something antisocial and destructive and, not incidentally, in violation of District laws.

    The last time the police nabbed him and then let him go, the man at the U.S. attorney's office said – according to Dan – "You mean you're 21 years old and you don't have anything better to do than go around painting and writing your name on walls? You ought to be ashamed."

    The name's on bridges, buses, transformer boxes, subway underpasses, liquor store walls. There are no official tabulations, but his tag must now exist on several thousand D.C. surfaces.

    Dan – he's on a white wall at Fifth and F NW, next to Engine Co. No. 2. Dan – he's on an orange door below ground at d.c. space. Dan – he's on girders holding up the Sousa Bridge. Dan – he's on a liquor store at 11th and I SE. (Actually, he's there twice.) Dan – he's on the side of the Good Earth Holistic Center in Chinatown. (Cool Boogie Dancer is there too.) Dan – he's outside the Golden Dome video arcade at 14th and K NW. (This is one of his late-night hangouts.) Dan – he's on an import auto repair below the Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill. On this same huge blue space, you'll find Gangster George and Rockin' Ra Ra and Sexy Snoop and Kool Keith and Lisa of the World, along with some unprintable others.

    For the record, the offense comes under Title 22, Subsection 3112, of the D.C. Code. It's the "destruction of property" law, covering everything from chinking statues to tossing excrement in fountains to scribbling or painting your name on public or private property. The offense is punishable by a $100 fine or six months in the can, or both. Those are legal realities. But there are some other realities to this story too.

    Is this the true Dan? Seems so. Too many things check out, not least the ease with which he pulls out a pen from the left front pocket of his chinos and glides his name across the face of your file folder.

    The curve of the letter C in "Cool." The oblong O in "Disco." The hook on the A in "Dan." If he's an impostor, he's got the real Dan's signature down cold.

    "I can't really say anything about that," he shrugs, on the point of whether he might be a counterfeit. "There's no way to really prove it. I guess whoever wants to prove it has to catch me writing it one night."

    Almost always this is an after-midnight man. He finds a wall. He Hancocks it. He's gone.

    Something else seems to check out: his shyness, the extreme wariness with strangers. It's one of the first things people from the underground press – who've put you in touch with him in the first place – bring up. In the initial two hours of a talk that will move to more than a dozen sites all over the city, Cool Disco Dan, the nocturnal name depositor, can barely make eye contact.

    He leans away – on a park bench, in a McDonald's booth, on a museum step. He's like a ship taking on water. He keeps twisting knots into his plastic Peoples Drug sack – like a man wringing the necks of chickens. This Peoples bag doesn't hold spray paints or markers, rather Hershey bars. About a dozen. That, too, checks: Dan the disco man is said to have a wild love for junk food.

    This soft-spoken shyness, this occupational furtiveness, seems somehow bound up with and not contradictory to the puffery, the vainglory, the deep need to get his name up there. Which is how he says it: "get my name up there."

    A shyness that must be connected somehow to a terrible cry for attention. But maybe all graffiti, even the vilest sort that you'd find on a toilet wall, are just some complex cri de coeur. From "Kilroy was here," which was the famous phantom scribble of World War II, to "Taki 183," which graf scholars (there are such people) mark as the approximate start of the New York subway spray-painting nightmare. In the early '70s, Taki 183, whoever he was, tagged his name all over Manhattan. Norman Mailer weighed in with a book, "The Faith of Graffiti." He said these wraithlike figures were leading us to "the beginning of another millennium of vision."

    Cool Disco Dan doesn't deal in millennia. He's a kid saying "I am."

    "I always wanted to be famous," he says at one point, flatly. "See, I grew up with not much attention in my life."

    At another point, talking of a deejay father who died when a scrawler-to-be was only 13: "I don't think I'd really be like I am today if he was here. He just always kept me in check, you know?" It was a blood clot in his father's head. "Ever since my father died, I was just out of it. My attitude changed. I started talking back to people."

    At another: "I think I can stop if I want. I don't want anybody to take my title. I can lay off for a good while."

    At another: "Every now and then I'll run across somebody who'll say, 'Why do you write your name on the wall? It's our city and you're making it real ugly. It's destructive behavior.' If they say it real nice and easy I say, 'Well, I don't know, I just want to do it. I like it.' But if they come up approaching me about my graffiti and aren't nice to me, then I'm not going to back down. If I'm bold enough to put it on the wall, I have to be bold enough to fight them."

    At another, lest you be going soft: "See, I got five sides to me. Mean. Real nice. Caring. Gentle. Evil. It depends on how people really treat me."

    He has decided to cooperate in a story, he says, because he's semi-retired now. He says he wishes to be photographed with a bandanna over his nose.

    Dan, you should know, is his real first name. His last name? It's Hogg. He says it upsets him when police officers or even friends pronounce it "hog." It's Hogg with a long O, as in "rogue."

    But why the bandanna bit? The District police – at least some District police – know who he is. He has an arrest record. (It's very scant, and there are no convictions.)

    The answer is that some of it is for show. "Uh, you want to keep them in suspense," he says, trying to kill a grin. "It's like Batman. I show my whole face, I won't be a surprise anymore." Danny Hogg adds: "Maybe months from now I'll break out with a can and just write my name everywhere. I don't know what the future might bring."

    In New York, graffiti artists sometimes pose and do their work in neckerchiefs. Perhaps it all taps into the Lone Ranger myth.

    Is he really in semi-retirement? And is he really the real Dan? Maybe for the rest of this, he should be thought of as Maybe Dan.

    History and Bio
    He started at 16. In the graffiti world, five years of writing and running is a lifetime. Practitioners of this craft tend to find their strokes early – and finish early too. The intensity can be unbearable, which ties right into the thrill: that you might get caught, and don't.

    He walks on his toes, like a dancer, like a boxer. He's got a little gold earring. He has short muscular arms. He wears a lime-green skullcap that's got slack at the top, like a balloon with not enough air in it.

    He weighs 135. He's 5 feet 6. He was born on New Year's Eve, 1969. The last grade he completed was the seventh. His uniform consists of black pants, black shirt, white sneaks. On his left pinkie is a large clear plastic "friendship ring." Today his T-shirt says, what else, "Cool Disco Dan." White on black.

    He's bald as a baby.

    Cool Disco Dan. It sounds a couple decades off.

    In the beginning, people saw it only in Southeast, in and around the Navy Yard. Dan grew up in Southeast. But then the words started popping up in Northeast, near Gallaudet University. Dan had attended Hamilton Junior High over there.

    He likes El Marko pens from Papermate. His favorite aerosol spray can is the one with the little colored balloons on it, made by Krylon. Dutch Boy's "The Fresh Look" is okay too.

    He racks his pens and markers from an art store in Georgetown, among other places. "Rack," as in steal. The word, like "tag," seems nearly universal among graffiti artists.

    "When I first started I wasn't into stealing," he says. "I'd be buying 50 cans of spray paint every other week. But then."

    For a long time he racked paints from a K mart on Little River Turnpike in Northern Virginia. That's because he once had a busboy job at a restaurant near the store. He had the job several times, actually. When you track down one of the day managers of that restaurant, she says, "He was a good employee, when he was here. Sometimes he'd just disappear. He'd walk in, you'd see him come in the front door, and then he was gone. It's as if the walls had swallowed him up."

    One of his thick black winter coats is still in the basement of the restaurant. So is his signature. It's on a locker where the employees change their clothes.

    He loves tagging his name in glossy black, although sometimes he does it in blue or white. The Disco part will be in large quotation strokes, almost as if he were sending some faintly self-mocking signal.

    He once spent 14 months in a private psychiatric treatment center in San Marcos, Tex. This was three years ago, after he'd been a patient for several months at a local treatment center on MacArthur Boulevard.

    "When I came back from Texas, I made a commitment," he says. "It was going to be a whole new life. I promised my mother. I was retired. I was doing it for me, I was doing it for my mother."

    But then he started hanging out with Kool K 9. "One day," he says. "One time. I thought, maybe one time won't hurt."

    He doesn't have a fixed address. He "floats." He's been staying off and on with the lady friend of a friend. He isn't married but he may be the father of one child he can't find – which is another reason he says he's willing to do this story: Maybe the mother will see it and get in touch with him. All he knows is that she was Lisa from Gaithersburg. He met her on a free telephone party line. They got together. She got pregnant. They lost one another.

    "I don't want to walk around here wondering if I got a child," he says. " 'Cause I always wanted a child. Oh, man. I think it would slow me up. To this day, it still tears me up, thinking about that."

    Now You See It
    At first you might notice it only subliminally. You're on your way home, you've got your head down, you're dodging pyramids of dog dirt. And then one day you bolt awake, you really see it, and it's as if that's all you can see.

    "Who is Cool Disco Dan, and why is the D.C. government ignoring him?" a reader wrote in the Outlook section of The Washington Post this past summer. You could almost hear the exasperation coming off the flat page.

    CDD: You'll find it in Baltimore. Some people claim to have sighted it in train corridors close to Atlantic City. It's on a water tank tower in Baker, La. But that one's an obvious fake.

    If you really want to experience the scrawled heart of 1991 Disco Dandom, ride the Red Line between Union Station and Silver Spring. The train rises up out of tunnel darkness, heading north, and pretty soon there's Dan, hammering at your eyeballs from practically every flat surface on either side of the tracks. The name is not on the cars or platforms themselves, though. Some people wonder if it's just a matter of time.

    "No, no, they're clean," he says, when you ask about the cars. "No, no. I respect that. People love them that way. Well, I only did it one time. On a seat. 'Cause I knew they'd come along and clean it off. I did it on the orange seat of one of the cars. With a Magic Marker. Man, I just wanted to do it once. I had the strangest urge."

    He's been caught writing eight or nine times in his career. They've always let him go, he says. He isn't sure why. He says they've threatened to send him out there with a brush and a bucket and some chemicals to clean it all off.

    His last nab – the only one for which there's any paper trail at D.C. Superior Court – was Jan. 20. He'd turned 21 by then. The charge was "destruction of property." Dan: "It was in a tunnel. ... Sunday morning. They came up behind me." The next day the U.S. attorney's office "no-papered" the charge. Which is to say dropped it. Dan thought sure they were going to send him up the river.

    Maybe he was just wishing himself bad luck, working in daylight.

    Those other times when they picked him up for writing, he was apparently never booked. Or at least there's no traceable record of it.

    "Friends of mine say, 'The police are looking for you.' And I say, 'Hey, if the police are so-called looking for me, they're not working at it very hard.' Tell you the truth, they compliment me more than anything. I know some of them. I see them. They say, 'Hey, I've been seeing your name.' "

    This isn't exactly how official spokesmen for the police department view it. Officer Dan Straub:

    "We enforce these laws. The problem is it's hard tracking down these people, seeing them in the act, getting a witness. As to the second part of your question, why he was let go: Well, we cannot speak for the U.S. attorney's office. It was their decision {to drop}."

    Mark Liedel, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office: "I guess you could say it falls under the rubric of a lack of prosecutorial merit. ... That's not to say we don't prosecute writing on walls around town. We do." Doubtless one of the factors in the decision to "no paper" last January's arrest is that the scrawler was considered a first-time offender – at least on the record books. Additionally, says Liedel, there might not have been enough technical evidence to go forward with a case. And then too, there is always the hard reality of ceaseless violent crime in the District.

    What it seems to come down to is this: There are no conclusive answers as to why a phantom writer has always slipped away.

    An Encounter
    Down toward Chinatown, an artist is showing off his canvases, the canvases being a city itself. He bumps into the Fila Kid. They talk. The Fila Kid, roughly Dan's age, is in retirement. Once, the Kid was everywhere. Fila's got a real job now.

    "I don't do it anymore," he says. He's got "Get Used" lettered on the back of his jean jacket.

    Why don't you do it?

    "No fun."

    Later Dan says, "I guess he just got enough attention in his life."

    A Tagger's Origins
    He's describing how it began. He's on a bench in a ratty square off 14th Street NW. Cops are strolling. Junkies are nodding. A suspendered evangelist is proselytizing pigeons. Dan's just eaten a Quarter Pounder, fries, a large Sprite. The interviewer paid. CDD had seemed appreciative and awkward. When he'd finished, he'd taken a napkin and folded it neatly into fours and dabbed at his lips almost daintily.

    And he says:

    There was a guy at school started calling me Disco Danny. I think there was a character on the TV show 'What's Happening!!' There were some other guys already out there with their tags – Go Go Randy, Cool Calm Chuck. I saw them. I was seeing them everywhere and I wanted to meet them and I noticed how they were getting famous. And I just came out with the name.

    One time I had a marker around my neighborhood and I wrote it on a brick wall. I was expanding out. ... Couple months later I just started hitting trash cans at the bus stop.

    When I first came out I was just pressed to get my name out. I didn't really care if somebody saw me. I just wanted to be like those other guys.

    I was doing real bad in school. I was hooking a lot of classes. My mother was getting on me. Getting so she was checking my pockets every time I left the house. See, I really wasn't using the paints yet.

    Then I got caught by two white undercover cops on the bus. They handcuffed me and took me down to – what station was that? Somewhere in Southwest. It kind of shocked me, kind of shook me up when I first got caught. The two cops called the police car to pick me up and they held me for the night and called my mother to pick me up. I had to go see this probation officer. I was put on probation for a week.

    Why did he start back?

    I started seeing other people's names up there. It was getting me motivated. I guess I was getting addicted to it.

    What It Isn't
    Where does an addicted man get his dough? How does he live? This isn't clear. He says he borrows from friends, he collects on some old debts, his mother – with whom he is now on semidecent terms, after many years of tension – helps him out.

    Are drugs involved?

    He's emphatic.

    "That's one thing I would never do, sell drugs, take drugs. No, no. I'm the kind of guy if I try something I get addicted to it. And I know how people turn out. So I said that's just one thing I can never do. I always just promised myself I would never mess with that. There's always been peer pressure about it. I said, nah."

    A Detour
    Enter Crackdc – not the narcotic leading this city to ruin but a new monthly handout street publication aiming to keep the youthful and hard-core and metal-head hip in touch with their music-and-club scene. Crackdc has a lot to do with CDD. The magazine's likable 25-year-old editor comes to work on a skateboard and studied English at Bates College in Maine and has a father in the foreign service. His name is Rob Myers. His girlfriend's name is Rebecca Potter. She runs the business side.

    Crackdc has been way out ahead of the mainstream media in the hunt for CDD. The editors made Dan, the phenomenon of Dan, the subject of their inaugural cover in June. In the issues since, they've been following up.

    Crackdc is edited not in some vermin-ridden basement in Adams-Morgan but in a 15th Street high-rise. The magazine's tiny space is on the same floor as the Shipping and Brokerage Corp. and the Washington Teachers Union.

    Crackdc has just changed its name: Whack! There was bad press over the original.

    But Crackdc and Dan. Er, Whack! and Dan. This Dan. They're now about to lead a reporter to his subject.

    "We just felt he was symbolic of something distinctly D.C.," says Myers.

    "We feel we've kind of adopted Dan," says Potter. She says two heads came in today and bought Disco Dan T-shirts. The shirts go for $10.50 a pop. A buck of that is being stuffed into a CDD fund – "to be handed over to Cool 'Disco' Dan if & when he reveals himself."

    This has grown into something of a cottage industry, not to say a small monster.

    "We had five people swearing they were him," says Potter. "They couldn't write it right. Then we met the one we think is the real one. He called up and said quietly, 'My name's Dan. You guys did a story about me.' He came in. We asked him to do his artwork. He did my desk."

    "He did my skateboard," says Myers.

    "We took him to McDonald's," says Potter. "Then we took him to Ginns and bought him two pens."

    They're not sure how they're going to resolve it all – maybe rent a large space in a club and drape a dozen sheets from the ceiling and then blow a whistle and have all the would-be Dans of greater D.C. tear through the joint, tagging their name. A kind of scribble marathon.

    The one they're almost certain is the bona fide Dan drops by their offices a lot now. It's a place to come to. He likes to play video games on their computer. They never know when he'll appear. He shows up and then he's gone again. He doesn't leave a phone number or address. At the guard's sign-in desk in the lobby, he writes "Danny," dutifully noting the time. It's in a kid's big loopy scrawl.

    CDD, Dreaming
    He's been talking for almost five hours. He's talked about his mother, who will be surprised, maybe shocked, he says, to see her son's picture and story in the paper. She knows he's CDD; it's not that. He has talked about a documentary film on his life that he says someone wants to do. (Funding's a problem.) He has talked about Savitra, a woman he met and fell in love with at the treatment center in Texas three years ago. He's lost touch and wants much to find her again.

    "I got a lot to live for," he says. "That's what I'm trying to say. I'm trying to get back with this girl ... I may have a baby out there ... Somebody may do a movie."

    Then he says, "I'm in control." But his voice has a small tremor in it.

    Nabbed
    More than a week goes by. One day the phone rings. It's the folks at Whack!: Dan is in the can. He got picked up on a shoplifting charge at a Woodies in Friendship Heights. He's being held in the E Wing of the Montgomery County Detention Center in Rockville. The official charge is "theft under $300." The bond is $500. A court date is set for Oct. 28. And it turns out there is an additional theft-less-than-$300 charge from this summer, with a court date of Nov. 4.

    A reporter goes out to see him. Dan, without the lime-green skull cap, wearing prison coveralls, comes in. He's bouncing on his toes. He sits on a chair behind the glass wall, picks up the phone. He's having a hard time making eye contact. He's been in nearly a week. The smile is full of nervousness.

    He says, "A few days in here, I've learned a lot. I want to get out and get a job. I mean it this time."

    © Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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