Greater Greater Washington

Preservation


The mark of Cool “Disco” Dan lives on in Southeast

By and large, Washington, DC is no longer a city under siege. The era of drug wars, automatic gunfire, and senseless violence has mostly passed. The graffiti that covered swaths of downtown, marked Metro buses, and claimed territory for rival crews is almost gone, too.


A Georgetown area tag, seen in 2005. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

The ubiquitous signature of Cool "Disco" Dan from Tenleytown to Congress Heights epitomized this sense of lawlessness. With a handful of tags slowly fading on Red Line electric boxes, Dan's impression has all but vanished.

Not yet. In the rear of a vacant building in the 2400 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, Dan's tag lives on. And thanks to an upcoming documentary, "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan", a new generation of Washingtonians has an opportunity to rediscover him.


Cool "Disco" Dan tag in the rear of 2412 MLK Jr., Ave. SE. Photo by the author.

In an alley off Talbert Street leading downhill towards the Metro, steps away from two mature blackberry trees, the mark of Dan rests in the cut between Hillsdale and Anacostia, hidden for all these years.

A short path from the alley mined with beer bottles, trash bags, and all sorts of garbage from flat tires to spare cinder blocks leads to the Son of Kilroy; "Kilroy Was Here" being the famous scrawl of World War II GIs.

Within weeks, vegetation will overgrow this small hump of humble southside land. Dan's tag will likely live on.

"Like police call boxes, streetcar tracks and Peoples Drug, those Dan tags are markers of a bygone era," says Mike DeBonis, a writer at The Washington Post who has covered the city for a decade. "Let's hope at least a few can hang on through the generations."

Dan's legacy

What did Dan mean to the city? What does he still mean to it?

To many, Dan was nothing more than a vandal; a low-level criminal who defaced private property for reasons of petty vanity. There is no reason to recognize or remember him. He and his ilk cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in clean-up costs.

For others, cutting across ethnic and class divisions, Dan was a local celebrity. He fulfilled a raw human desire for acknowledgment by writing his name all over town, from Metro lines to rooftops to vacant buildings. On the violent canvas that was DC in the 1980s and 1990s, Cool "Disco" Dan's greeting was everywhere. His heart and veins pumped no fear. He was the murder capital's restless scribe.

From mentions in DC-themed novels to a permanent holding in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Dan has one more venue to hit: the silver screen.

Last March, a 90-minute rough cut of "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan" was featured as part of the Docs in Progress series. Although not at the showing, Los Angeles-based Executive Producer Roger Gastman, author of the seminal "Free Agents: A History of Washington, D.C. Graffiti" and more recently, "The History of American Graffiti", says that for the moment he is "keeping all Dan low key."

That could change early next year. According to the movie's website, February 2013 is the likely release date. It promises many insights into the normally reclusive Dan. Until then, for those who vilify and glorify him alike, his legend will have to suffice.

John Muller is a local journalist and historian. His first book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia, was selected as the 2013 DC Reads winner. His newest book is Mark Twain in Washington, DC

Comments

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Nope you had it right the first time: Dan was nothing more than a vandal; a low-level criminal who defaced private property for reasons of petty vanity. There is no reason to recognize or remember him. He and his ilk cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in clean-up cost

by RJ on Jun 6, 2012 2:36 pm • linkreport

There's a Capitals v Penguins rivalry joke in here somewhere...

by GU Alum on Jun 6, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

Hurry up and cover or remove immediately before somebody nominates them as historically protected.

by spookiness on Jun 6, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

Please. Despite what you see in the movies, there was never any "automatic" gun fire in DC. "semi-automatic" would have been more appropriate.

by beatbox on Jun 6, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

very cool. but i question the authenticity since it's missing the quotes around "disco"

by JessMan on Jun 6, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

@JessMan -- look closer

@beatbox -- Don't know what you're talking about. AKs, etc. can be semi but out here they came auto. Remember when the Jamaicans tried to take DC over? Maybe you don't, but I do. Yeah, autos, bro. And I don't know watch TV, I watch the streets.

by SE Jerome on Jun 6, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

How does Cool "Disco" Dan feel about Borf?

by Tina on Jun 6, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

Not true about Dan never having been in the movies--his mark makes a brief appearance in the unfortunate Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

For those of us native to Washington, Dan represents a lot--including a reminder that there are people actually from here, which in the 70s and 80s, was a rare thing. His tag was certainly a cultural touchstone for me growing up here, and I hope they can find a way to preserve some of his tags.

by Brian on Jun 6, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

As a criminal who is part of DC folklore, Cool Disco Dan is worth remembering just like other criminals in American history, like Bonnie & Clyde. While its arguable whether any criminal deserves a place in history and deserves remembrance, I'm glad to see that modern day versions (like CDD) do not physically harm anyone or steal money. Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and others like them were a totally different level of criminal.

Dan was nothing more than a vandal; a low-level criminal who defaced private property for reasons of petty vanity. There is no reason to recognize or remember him.

I guess if he was a high-level criminal who committed crimes for reasons of self-enrichment, then there would be a reason to recognize and remember him?

by Falls Church on Jun 6, 2012 4:40 pm • linkreport

"For others, cutting across ethnic and class divisions, Dan was a local celebrity. "

Translation: White people liked these tags because they could actually read them. All of the other tags looked like gibberish.

by Cyclone on Jun 6, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

I always appreciated the quotes around "Disco", as if Cool Dan was his given name.

by G.Friday on Jun 6, 2012 5:15 pm • linkreport

So now this "Disco Dan" clown has gone from common vandal to media hero.

Well done, GGW. You've just legitimized him. Look for a copycat tag near you.

by ceefer66 on Jun 6, 2012 6:16 pm • linkreport

@SE Jerome---Yes, I remember that, and although AKs do come in "selective fire" (or the ability to fire full auto) that is not what they were using. They were using the semi-auto version. The full auto versions cost 20K minimum, are tough to get, and just are not worth it. Any gang worth its salt would not use them. They were semi's.

by beatbox on Jun 6, 2012 8:40 pm • linkreport

@beatbox What crew you claim?

by SE Jerome on Jun 6, 2012 11:30 pm • linkreport

The people who see Cool "Disco" Dan as nothing more than a common criminal are rather common themselves.

by SluggoSluggo on Jun 7, 2012 7:13 am • linkreport

@SluggoSluggo,

"The people who see Cool "Disco" Dan as nothing more than a common criminal are rather common themselves"

----

What's "common" are the people who can't differentiate between art and vandalism.

It isn't "art" unless you own what you're taggging. Anyone who can't see the difference isn't the brightest bulb on the tree.

End of story.

by ceefer66 on Jun 7, 2012 9:33 am • linkreport

He was a poor man's Donald Trump plastering his name everywhere.

by Uncool "new wave" Fred on Jun 7, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

I remember these tags from my youth. IMO people are being too hard on him. It was a vastly different time and mindset.
Urban decay was all around in a way that many in DC today would have a hard time truly comprehending. To me, his tags humanized decrepit infrastructure that had been made cold and foreboding by a generation of civil disinvestment.
I don't recall his tags on things that people obviously cared for.

by Mark on Jun 7, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

MARS: Mid-Atlantic Regional Showcase World Premiere!
THE LEGEND OF COOL “DISCO” DAN
In person: filmmakers Joseph Pattisall, Roger Gastman, Iley Brown, Caleb Neelon and narrator Henry Rollins
Sat, Feb 23, 8:00
Discover the “other” Washington of the 1980s through the story of legendary graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan, a mysterious, ubiquitous presence during the height of go-go music, record crime rates and city-wide dysfunction. Few people knew every block of the city like Dan, and as intrigue about his identity grew, his illegal scrawl became a unifying force for a city on the verge of chaos. Narrated by DC native Henry Rollins and featuring interviews with “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry, civil rights activist Rev. Walter Fauntroy, punk rock historian and activist Mark Andersen and musicians Chuck Brown and Ian MacKaye, this documentary from filmmakers Joseph Pattisall and Roger Gastman (producer, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP) tells a fascinating chapter of DC history. DIR Joseph Pattisall; PROD Roger Gastman. US, 2012, color and b&w, 90 min. NOT RATED

Screening in conjunction with the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition, “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s,” opening February 23, the first exhibition to explore the thriving underground of Washington, DC, during the 1980s, giving visual form to the raucous energy of graffiti, go-go music and a world-renowned punk and hardcore scene. For more information, visit corcoran.org.

by Susan at AFI Silver on Jan 24, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

I think it's awesome too see this come too life he is a legend and give him that whatever you think in my book he put us on the map I should know I tried to keep up with his tags but Dan took it too new heights keep it dude

by Woody on Jan 27, 2013 8:52 pm • linkreport

everyone on here talks as if dan is dead. he is very much alive and still partakes in the occasional tag here and there. dan's style is a holdover from 70s and early 80s go-go culture. i assure you the gunfire was automatic. dan and i heard quite a bit of it creeping around ne in the early 90s. if you would like to learn more about dan and possibly even help in efforts to assist him, please join The Society For The Preservation Of Cool "Disco" Dan at http://www.facebook.com/CoolDiscoDan thanks.

by Asad ULTRA Walker on Jan 31, 2013 5:02 pm • linkreport

All you folks talking trash need a check up. There were a lot more criminal things that we could of been doing besides tagging buildings that you didn't give two $hlt$ about then or now. Get a Fing life folks and recognize this man for what he is.

by LOCO on Jan 31, 2013 7:55 pm • linkreport

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