Everyone knew his name.
For years, an underground icon who went by Cool “Disco” Dan scrawled his moniker in nearly every corner of the nation’s capital — Metro cars, back alleys, the roofs of buildings. His spray-painted tag was ubiquitous in the 1980s and ’90s, and his legend towered over a grittier Washington.
But next month, a little more than year after his death, Cool “Disco” Dan’s work will get displayed in one place the graffiti artist probably never would have expected: an art exhibit at the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall.
“It is an episode of law breaking that will be displayed in a place of lawmaking,” said Josh Gibson, the D.C. Council’s director of communications.
It’s “complicated,” Gibson conceded — and is, perhaps, made more so by the timing of the announcement, which came two days after the D.C. Department of Public Works publicized the results of the mayor’s “Great Graffiti Wipeout,” an eight-week blitz aimed at “aggressively eradicating graffiti.”
The department dispatched cleanup crews to all eight wards and erased 902 graffiti markings, adding to a total of over 5,000 removed this fiscal year. The department budgeted about $837,000 for the year’s effort.
Had “Disco” Dan still been alive and writing, it’s likely his name would have been among the thousands erased. Instead, it’ll be displayed, as he drew it — on plywood and rusty metal — in the halls home to the highest local government officials.
‘Everything is different’
The history of Cool “Disco” Dan evokes some of the city’s most desperate years.
After the 1968 riots, as the boards went up over the broken windows of burned-out buildings along Florida Avenue and 14th Street NW, graffiti began to punctuate the destruction. The messages were simple: “Soul brother” or “Mike” or “Steve” scrawled across buildings. Some of the writing lingered on shuttered storefronts for years. It eventually gave way to artists like Cool “Disco” Dan, whose given name was Danny Hogg.
Roger Gastman, an artist himself, has chronicled this history — and that of urban graffiti across the country — in books, movies and art galleries.
Gastman met Hogg in the early ’90s, when Hogg was already famous and when Gastman was a teenager. The two became friends, and Gastman would go on to make a documentary about Hogg, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” and help him get his art into local galleries.
In one of his books, “Pump Me Up,” Gastman wrote about digging up details on Hogg’s life and his prolific career as a graffiti writer. It was a journey that took him all over the city, to every alley and street corner and worn-out apartment building that may have sported Hogg’s tag.
“I soon came to realize that the story of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan was the story of D.C.,” Gastman wrote.
The first time Hogg wrote his name, Gastman noted, was on a concrete shack behind his elementary school. He did it in crayon.
The city’s early graffiti scene and go-go music, a distinctive homegrown brand of funk, grew up together. Hogg looked up to these early “go-go writers,” particularly R.E. Randy and Sir Nose 84, Gastman said. But he would soon surpass them.
Hogg was one of the few writers to cross over from the go-go style, which is more simple and straightforward, to the world of traditional graffiti, which was then coming out of cities like New York and Philadelphia. He was a talented artist, but he will always be more famous for his unadorned tag, his way of becoming a celebrity, Gastman said.
“I wanted to be big. Like, big big,” Hogg told Gastman in an interview. “I wanted people from out of town talking about me as much as people in town.”
So he concentrated on high-profile spots — rooftops, storefronts at high-traffic intersections and, famously, along the exposed, aboveground section of Metro’s Red Line, its thousands of riders a captive audience.
“He would stake out locations like a cop staking out a perp,” Gastman said in an interview. “He was very aware of all parts of the city and where his name would get the most recognition and notice. Dan had always been there first and left a mark to let everyone know he’d been there.”
In the 2000s, as Gastman traveled through Washington, collecting footage and photographs, he quickly realized he was racing time. Where one week a building with a Cool “Disco” Dan tag stood, a pile of rubble could take its place the next, as a path was cleared for a new condominium development.
“That part of D.C. is so long gone,” Gastman said. “The neighborhoods are different; everything is different. And even so, many of the people who live in D.C. aren’t there anymore. They’re gone, and there’s not that much to celebrate.”
Gibson wants to pay tribute to that part of the city’s history by displaying Cool “Disco” Dan work at the Wilson Building.
“It’s just D.C.,” he said. “Real, hardcore, District D.C. Non-Washington, nonfederal, real D.C.”
That’s the city Gibson remembers from the late ’80s, when he was riding Metro from his home in Montgomery County to a summer internship in the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). He was one of the many who counted the Cool “Disco” Dan tags from the train.
After Hogg died, Gibson, who runs the D.C. Council Twitter handle, sent a tweet asking for the public’s help in identifying any remaining Cool “Disco” Dan tags. Many people suggested looking along the Red Line. One day, Gibson spotted it — Hogg’s legendary tag on a rusted, out-of-order railroad telephone box. He asked CSX about it, and the freight company cut down the box, metal stand and all, and gifted it to the council.
The other piece that will go up in the Wilson Building this fall once hung in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as part of an exhibit Gastman curated in 2013. The Cool “Disco” Dan tag is visible below frayed posters on a peeling piece of plywood.
The exhibit will go up in September, in the basement, in front of one of the Wilson Building’s few patches of exposed brick — a setting more of a piece with the works’ natural environs than the marble walls found elsewhere in the building, Gibson said.
The council hopes the exhibit will encourage more interest in local government, but it is not an endorsement of illegal graffiti, Gibson said.
“It’s an endorsement of the culture that lies behind it; it’s an endorsement of the skill set that could go into it,” Gibson said. “But, moving forward, it’s the exception that proves the rule.”
For artists who want to make street art, there is a legal way, said Gabriel Robinson, the chief operating officer at the Department of Public Works. Maybe the next Cool “Disco” Dan will come up through MuralsDC, a city program that partners with artists to create legal murals, Robinson posited.
“This program really allows artists to know that there is a legal way to push out their artwork,” he said. “They don’t have to remain in the shadows.”
But in the shadows is where Hogg worked. And thrived.
In a 1991 Washington Post profile, Hogg said people sometimes told him, “Why do you write your name on the wall? It’s our city, and you’re making it real ugly. It’s destructive behavior.”
“Well, I don’t know, I just want to do it,” Hogg responded. “I like it.”
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