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‘A folk hero’: D.C. street art legend Cool ‘Disco’ Dan dies at 47

Danny Hogg in front of one of his tags (Adam Amenguel)

Danny Hogg, the prolific Washington street artist who plastered the city with his tag, Cool “Disco” Dan, died of complications from diabetes on Wednesday. He was 47.

Mr. Hogg’s tag became an enduring symbol for a city that had endured a lot. He was at his most prolific in the late ’80s and early ’90s, an era when D.C. was known as the country’s “murder capital” and then-Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for using crack cocaine.

“When you think of D.C.’s turbulent times, what happened and where the city came from, he is an icon of that era,” said Roger Gastman, a documentary filmmaker who produced a movie, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” about Mr. Hogg and the D.C. street art scene. “There’s not many left. He’s a folk hero.”

Mr. Hogg grew up in Capitol Heights, Md., and spent most of his childhood drawing, said his mother, Denise Womack. He got his nickname from going to go-go shows, and spent his teenage years spray painting that name on buildings across the city.

“I would give my kids allowance for doing errands in the house, and he would use the money to buy spray cans and markers,” said Womack, who recalled throwing them in the trash whenever she found them. “The police came to our door many times — ‘Oh, your son was writing on government buildings,’ ” she said.

His graffiti style was “very plain, simple, in your face, the bare bones of graffiti,” said Asad Walker, a graffiti artist and friend of Mr. Hogg’s. “I think the overall D.C. style, still to this day, can be kind of simple and straightforward. That aesthetic was promoted by him.”

In 1991, Mr. Hogg was profiled by Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson, who accompanied him on a late-night tagging binge.

“Almost always this is an after-midnight man. He finds a wall. He Hancocks it. He’s gone,” Hendrickson wrote.

Some thought he was the most prolific graffiti artist in D.C., but that wasn’t true, Gastman said. “I bet other people had their name more. Dan just picked the best spots.”

D.C. graffiti artists Cory Stowers and Eric B. have given up illegal graffiti and now use legal murals to recall the city’s past. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Like along the Metro’s Red Line, where commuters could see his tag every morning. Or on the former Washington Coliseum. Or along the 14th Street Bridge.

“He thought long and hard about where to put it,” said Joseph Pattisall, who made the documentary with Gastman. “He would go back and trace it to get it as thick and as bold as he could. He took more risk than pretty much anybody.”

He had run-ins with the cops, of course. But Mr. Hogg’s notoriety preceded him, and his relationship with police was not entirely adversarial. Walker remembered a time when the two of them were painting graffiti in Edgewood Terrace and heard gunshots nearby. They decided to leave, and were walking down Rhode Island Avenue, when a police cruiser passed by them and slowed down.

“I was like, man, if these cops turn around, I’m dumping all of these cans,” Walker said. “The cop car does a U-turn and comes back to us, and the cop is like, ‘Hey Dan!’ It was 3 a.m. The cop recognized him from behind. That’s how famous he was.”

In person, Mr. Hogg was reserved and shy.

“Graffiti is a funny thing, because you want everyone to know you, but you don’t want anyone to know you at the same time,” Pattisall said.

Mr. Hogg stopped tagging in the early 2000s. But he experienced a bit of a comeback in 2013. That was the year Gastman’s documentary made its debut, and an increasingly gentrified D.C. experienced a collective nostalgia for the city’s bygone culture — but a sanitized version of it. Cool “Disco” Dan found his work displayed in the Corcoran Gallery of Art for “Pump Me Up,” a tribute to D.C.’s graffiti and go-go culture. It also briefly inspired the name of a doughnut shop — Cool “Disco” Donuts — which sparked an angry discussion about appropriation in a city where several white-owned restaurants are named after black artists.

Artists are fired up over doughnut shop’s use of Cool “Disco” Dan’s name

In addition to his diabetes, Mr. Hogg struggled with mental illness, poverty and homelessness throughout his life. He didn’t attend some of the screenings of his documentary because he couldn’t be reached. His final residence was a state-funded group home in Fairfax, Gastman said, who, along with Pattisall, maintained a relationship with the artist after their documentary was produced.

Mr. Hogg was wary about this turn in the spotlight, but eventually warmed to it, said his friend Rosina Teri Memolo, a local photographer who has documented his work.

“He was always happy to sign things and to make people’s day,” she said. “I think that was one of his favorite things, the love that he got. I think he thrived off of that and he appreciated it.”

Most of Mr. Hogg’s tags have been erased now — painted over, or gone because buildings have been replaced by condos and offices. His friends said that in recent years, he had come to embrace his legacy as D.C.’s most famous street artist.

“He knows, without being egotistical, that Cool ‘Disco’ Dan is an icon of D.C.,” Gastman said, still speaking in the present tense about his friend. “He knows that it has become larger than himself.”