Everyone Knew His Name. Now Hear His Story

Legendary graffiti artist Cool Disco Dan tagged the gritty D.C. streets for decades, but his life was always a mystery—until now.

Cool Disco Dan
Cool Disco Dan Nedham Smith

There was a time, back in the ’80s and the ’90s, when you couldn’t turn the corner in Washington, D.C., and not see some evidence that Cool Disco Dan had been there. Way before Banksy, the D.C. graffiti artist was blasting his nom de plume on the sides of buildings, on bridges and on subway overpasses, making guerilla art. But for all the ubiquity of his name, no one knew who he was. The Washington Post even dubbed him “the urban phantom.” Disco Dan was the invisible man, tagging the Chocolate City, demanding to be noticed even as he hid from the spotlight.

Now, thanks to a recently released documentary, The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan, the anonymous tagger Disco Dan, aka Danny Hogg, has emerged from behind the spray can. Hogg was born on the very last day of the 1960s, and his troubled life—he has struggled with mental illness and homelessness—follows the equally troubled trajectory of a rapidly changing city. The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan is Hogg’s story, but it’s also the story of a city largely abandoned and left to rot in the wake of the ’68 riots, a city once dubbed the murder capital of the world, ripped apart by crack cocaine and the often vicious street crews who peddled it on virtually every corner. It’s Marion Barry and go-go music and body bags and Ben’s Chili Bowl, urban blight and massive gentrification of a once Chocolate City. (The film is available for rent or purchase by the online distribution company at Yekra.com.)

“A lot of people think Disco Dan, all he does is spray paint walls and make art,” Hogg says in the documentary. “I do more than that, know what I’m saying? Pound for pound, I do more than that. Keep your ears open and your eyes open for me. Don’t blink.”

The Root sat down with filmmakers Roger Gastman and Joseph Pattisall to talk about the mysterious Dan and why they spent 10 years and untold amounts of their own money chasing after him.

The Root: How did Disco Dan first come to your attention?

Roger Gastman: I grew up in [the D.C. suburb of] Bethesda, Md. I saw Cool Disco Dan’s name before I even knew what graffiti was. I met Dan when I was at 14 at a hardcore punkers’ event in D.C. somewhere. Probably 1993. And he was there, not because he was a fan of the music; he was there because that’s where the kids who were doing graffiti were. He was on my radar early on. It was like, “Holy crap, that’s Disco Dan.” From a line cook to a taxi driver to a lawyer, everyone knew who Dan was.

Joseph Pattisall: My story is very similar to Roger’s, but I didn’t meet Dan at a hardcore show. I grew up in [the Virginia suburb of] Alexandria, and was involved in bands and music, and I had an entirely separate set of friends that admired Dan. Cool Disco Dan was the icon of that era. [He] was always there. You never started to notice [his tagging]. It was always there. Then it wasn’t, and we decided to make a movie.

It’s one of those things you don’t think twice about until it’s gone. It’s very uncomfortable when it wasn’t there anymore. It was a flag of an era. It was a sign of the times that’s gone.