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: 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.
TR: Why did you decide to cast Dan’s story against such an historic backdrop of the city itself?
JP: Once we researched Dan, and researched his story. His story starts in the ’60s with the riots. We need to let people know how D.C. became a Chocolate City, and what happened when D.C. started to let these buildings [deteriorate]. We wanted to have a very diverse group of people in the documentary, from musicians, go-go bands, punk bands. Dan’s story is his story. We wouldn’t change that.
TR: How did you get Dan involved in the project?
RG: We would stay in touch with him. He’d disappear, but when Dan wants to be found, he lets himself be found. At first, we said, “Dan, let’s do a full book.” He said, good. We started researching around 2000. We worked with him, two years plus. But then in 2005, we said, “Why don’t we film this, because D.C. is changing so much?” This project has been a giant labor of love. It’s been really, really long.
TR: Where is Dan today?
RG: He is doing better right now than he was probably a year ago. I think that this whole project has been up and down for him. It’s been an up-and-down process for all of us. He’s currently in a stable situation and receiving treatment. He’s had such a great attitude and has been so happy with this film.
JP: We’re really happy that he’s trusted us to do this.
Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.