washington d.c. graffiti legend cool "disco" dan pointing out his incredible and iconic tag
Photo: Adam Amengual

Washington D.C. Graffiti Writers Reflect On Cool “Disco” Dan’s Legacy

Two weeks ago, America lost one its most important folk heroes. Danny Hogg, the Washington D.C. graffiti writer better known as Cool “Disco” Dan, passed away at the age of 47 due to complications from diabetes.

During D.C.’s roughest years in the ’80s and early ’90s, Cool “Disco” Dan’s tag was everywhere and became a symbol of the Chocolate City’s real culture. His name caught major attention along D.C.’s Metro Red Line, enlivening the daily commute. Dan came from D.C.’s go-go graffiti era, but he would continue putting up his iconic signature well into the ’90s, mixing in with a new generation of writers that came into the fold.

“Cool ‘Disco’ Dan meant everything to us growing up. He had been there before. Where you ask? Everywhere,” says D.C. culture chronicler Roger Gastman, who produced the 2013 documentary The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan. “His stories were insane. People with nicknames didn’t really exist like he said they did. Oh, but how so many of us were wrong. As we got a bit older and ventured out more, Dan’s world was real. He was an encyclopedia of D.C. He knew every street, every alley, every hole in a fence. Dan was our hero and more of an attachment to a city then we ever could have dreamed.”

With the help of Gastman, MASS APPEAL interviewed five D.C. graffiti writers to get their reflections on Dan’s incredible mark on the nation’s capital.

Gangster George

Well Dan, he was cool, he was shy. I met Dan down F Street down by the Mall because we used to hang out around there downtown. I thought I was spray painting everywhere and getting wild places, but then when he did that thing on the Red Line, my hat went off to him.

Once you took that line from Union Station all the way up to Takoma Station or Silver Spring, it was on another level because everybody saw it. Everybody saw Cool “Disco” Dan’s name. That’s four metro stops, going from Northeast D.C. all the way to Silver Spring, Maryland. That’s like a good 10 miles.

We was spray painting back in ’85 to ’87, I stopped around ’87  to raise my son, but Dan kept going, I don’t know when he stopped. Most of the time we did it because we were going to go-go and getting our names up. I did it to meet girls! If I don’t know the band playing, or they didn’t know me, I wrote my name on a sheet of paper and gave it to the guy rapping on the mic.

At first me and Dan were competitors, but eventually we became friends. I saw him a lot down F Street because I worked downtown. So I would go out during lunchtime and hang with fellas, sit out and listen to go-go tapes, talk, then go back to work. We were competitors for about a year until he did the Red Line. Once he did that, I was like, Damn! I can’t get that one! I didn’t have no style or anything, we were just putting our names up. I had a block “G,” but I was just writing my name. A lot of it depended on the time, and spray painting is illegal so you are just trying to hit it and go. I got locked up once for painting the Big K liquor store, so they made me paint the wall again. We were just juveniles, 17 to 19-year-olds without a care in the world. It was a rush to get your name up.

Gangster George on the upper right

I don’t pay much attention to graffiti no more. I put my name in cement by my house one day because the opportunity came about. Back then, I was young and carefree, we all were. We would destroy your property quick. I knew Dan’s name was everywhere but I never knew it would go down like this. I was shocked when Dan told me about people doing a documentary I was like, For real? A documentary about you? For spray painting? Get the fuck outta here!

We was just hitting walls for our friends to know we were there. It started as a bus thing because we didn’t have cars and we would just put our names on the window. Different color spray paint cans and big jumbo markers and just go from there. I didn’t even know it was called tagging, we were just spray painting.

I never brag about being Gangster George, but people still call me Gangster. My wife though, Why they keep calling you Gangster, you ain’t no gangster!‘ Like, yo, I got that name for life, I earned it.

Dan’s passing shocked me, I haven’t seen Dan in a minute. I kind of wish I got him to sign my books and all that. He was a good dude and the king, I give him that.

SMK

In 1983 I began a career in writing. From 1988 to 2000, I was the most active in D.C. Around here, writing was not confined to just D.C. Maryland and Virginia also got it as well. One of my man’s younger brothers started writing. So my man and I start giving his younger brother outlines and whatnot. He shows them to his friend and he started writing as well. That friend moved from D.C. to NYC in 1996 and actually ending up becoming one of the founders of MASS APPEAL.

Dan was a great influence and motivated myself to get up, I saw Dan’s tags when I started writing, however it was stacked style, which to me was not the primary goal of being a piecer. I was already going down a different path.

In Washington D.C., the Red Line is the primary commuter transit line into the city from the north, set along a corridor of warehouse backs. So in a sense it’s a four-mile-long gallery. I personally have run into Dan on the line many times. If someone did a piece, “Disco” Dan would come by and take a tag near your piece. Even before the line got smacked with pieces, Dan already had his moniker on it.

Dan was somewhat shy. The first time I met him, we shook hands exchanged books and told stories like writers usually do. We had a mutual respect for one another and what we had both achieved at that point. Around 1994, I took my mother shopping on F Street NW. I was near The Wiz record store, and as we are walking I see Dan coming up the block. We stopped and started talking. I introduced him to my mom and she was excited, but Dan was psyched like shit. He was awestruck at the fact he got to meet her. I gave him a marker before I said peace.

D.C. graffiti did not evolve quickly, it took a span of about 10 years. The go-go tags were usually people going to and from the go-go. This was when D.C. was the murder capital. All them dudes who wrote probably got caught up in the gunplay. Most of the go-go venues also closed. Through all the writing crews of the ’90s, more exposure to graf culture locally opened people’s eyes to the real. Dan’s legacy will continue with the members of F.F.C.

Cert

I grew up in the Maryland/D.C. area and started writing on shit around 1991. Stepped on the gas putting in heavy street work and touching the Red Line until the late ’90s. I came back for a refresher in the late 2000s and mainly cracked the Red Line again. Top cats I put work in with include D.C. originals SMK, Dek, Kelt, Cast, Exakto, Mist, Eon, Pez, Sest. The squads I been reppin ELW, FLY ID, FL, D30, FFC, TMA.

Cool “Disco” Dan really put graffiti on the map for the metro D.C. area. I really feel he created the awareness of graffiti that otherwise wouldn’t have been there during that time frame. Squares that didn’t even know what the fuck graffiti was still saw and were familiar with his name. If you came up in the area during the late ’80s/’90s, unless you were blind, you’ve seen Dan’s name. On the contrary, even if you couldn’t see, you heard peeps talk about “Disco” Dan. He propelled the graffiti scene in the state that ultimately spawned a huge amount of writers. Before I even got heavy into the game, or even knew what the fuck it was about, I was still very familiar with his name. I mean shit, I rocked a Cool “Disco” Dan shirt on my first day of high school, and you know that first day you gotta come fresh. 

The Red Line is the main line of the D.C. Metro System, which is mostly made up of outdoor tracks that carve into Maryland and the District of Columbia. The fact that D.C. was such a small city meant most peeps lived outside [of it] and rode the train into the city for work. You had the third busiest transit system behind NY and Chicago, which meant mad exposure. This made the Red Line the place you had to have your name up if you wanted to make a dent in the game. To this day it holds the the most amount of work put in and work still being put in. I spent the majority of my career on that line and will always have love for it. God bless the fuckin Red Line.

I’m holding mad stories about Dan, but one sticks in my mind as I sip this rum drink in my hand. It’s the mid ’90s and I’m on a tall, high profile, rooftop right in the heart of Chinatown in D.C. with Cast and Taint. We are catching fills and have a ladder to get some extra height. About halfway down we notice some cat way down on the corner peeping us. Fuck, this dude peeped us we gotta dip. Then homie just starts waving at us. Staring at each other we like, What the fuck? We look closer.. It’s fuckin Disco Dan chillin’ on the corner at 3 a.m., just waving and smiling at us. We finished up, rolled down to the street to say what up. He had a grin on his face and was like, That’s a nice spot. I mean, he was just out there rolling dolo all the time, that’s who the fuck he was.

Man, graffiti has changed a lot in the last couple decades. First of all, the graffiti population done raised 10 fold and the world has become an overall nicer place. More cameras, more surveillance. Everybody knows what the fuck it is nowadays, they can peep it on the net whenever they want. Shit, some cats paint just to post. The game didn’t used to be played like that. If you didn’t know where the spots were, know how to get in them, or seen 35mm prints of them, then you didn’t know. You had to be connected or have the grit to get out there and find spots. I think most of the younger generation still do look up to the old heads, you have to know where it came from and you have to hold respect. Of course it doesn’t always play like that, but that’s how I feel. 

Man, Cool “Disco” Dan. More than a legend, he was a man. I’m talking about a man that rolled solo through the District of Columbia when it was the murder capital, going all city. He forever put his name on a city where millions came to make a mark and failed. Rest In Peace Dan, you will never be forgotten my friend. 

Richard Colman

Richard Colman’s Site

The appreciation for Dan wasn’t just felt among graffiti writers, but citywide. Growing up in D.C. at that time with him around was super unique. You would just run into Dan and he was really quiet and super nice. You would be out in the middle of nowhere in D.C. at 3 o’clock in the morning and you would just see him.

What Dan did really stood out and just made you wonder, What is that and who is this fucking dude?! This tag is everywhere! It could have been because of the way it was stylized, how bold it was or the fact that it was everywhere. I started noticing Dan before I even started thinking about graffiti for sure. To be honest, seeing Cool “Disco” Dan was like seeing our Bat signal. It had that kind of feeling to it. He was a presence within D.C. and you would see it everywhere.

If you talk to anybody from that era in D.C., everybody knew who Cool “Disco” Dan was. And everybody was at the very least curious. There were theories about who he was, how old he was, if he was different people. There was some real cultural curiosity about this dude. “Oh that dude has been around since the ’60s.” “He’s 70 years old.” “No that is just some kid.” Nobody really knew, until, of course, you got into graffiti and ended up meeting him.

a cool disco dan sketch out of a blackbook from roger gastman's personal collection of disco dan artworkEven if you knew him he was a fascinating character. I remember housesitting at a buddy’s house in L.A. and I was woken up by a knock at the door at like 2 o’clock in the morning. I go to the door and it’s Dan, and he just asked if my buddy is there. I said no and he’s just like, “OK,” and just walked away.

Turns out, he just randomly got on a bus to come out and see if this dude was there, checked and then just got back on a bus to D.C. That encounter was surprising and it wasn’t. When you were a kid in D.C. out in the middle of nowhere you would always see Dan somewhere. It was crazy. This was back when a lot of D.C. was a ghost town and he’d just be out there. His graffiti was like that, too, no matter where you were, it would pop up. It was a constant. His tag was everywhere always. Most people get into graffiti, get out. It changes and people move on. He was always there. That’s what I mean by when I say he was our Bat signal, we always had this constant presence that was looking out for us. It stayed pure and it never got corrupted. What he was doing was sort of innocent in a way. It never evolved stylistically or anything like that, but he always represented that night culture. That adventure of graffiti and just being out during those times.

Courtesy of Roger Gastman

I can say with total certainty that I make art for a living and this is what I do and I feel privileged to have grown up in D.C. at that time with Dan doing what he was doing. I can say with full confidence he played a huge part in that. It was very inspiring that someone was out there was doing that for no other reason than just to do it. I think that’s what I mean by it never getting corrupted. Dan was just always doing it to do it. I think you would have a tough time finding anybody who came up in D.C. around those times who wasn’t influenced by him. Everybody had their squabbles, but he was just always around—a part of everything, but wasn’t a part of any of it, and that shit was awesome.

Thinking about it now, it was a very powerful thing to have around, to have that constant. When I found out that he passed I was fucking blown away. That fucked me up for sure. It’s one of those things you take for granted. You assume he’s always going to be there, always doing that shit. He was the embodiment or the representation of the “other D.C.” He was the representation of everything that I thought was cool about D.C. growing up there. Not all the politics, not all the bullshit and all that. Even within graffiti, he represented the good parts. Not the beefs or the drama, just going out there and doing it. Out on a mission at night, up on roofs, down alleys and streets when no one was around. He represented all that awesome shit that gets you into graffiti in the first place.

Ultra

Ultra’s Website

I started writing in the very early ’80s. D.C. had a lot of graffiti, we didn’t even know what New York was even about. Now we call it go-go graffiti, but back then it was just graffiti. It was very much Cool “Disco” Dan style of writing. I actually started writing before Dan, in 1982 at 16 or 17 years old. I guess if you were in New York, go-go graffiti looked like NYC graffiti in the ’60s. It was huge here, at that time we had no real trains. When I was a kid it went from Friendship Heights to Rhode Island Ave., and that was it. So most graffiti was street bombing and hitting buses. We did a lot of motion tags.  I used to write, Hobo Of Everywhere. There was a lot of triple stacking, where everybody’s name had three parts like Cool “Disco” Dan. I wrote Hobo Of Everywhere because I was a homeless kid running around and didn’t have a neighborhood. I ended up going to New York City for four years from ’84 to ’88. D.C. began understanding what NYC style graffiti looked like from movies like Style Wars and Wild Style. However when Beat Street came, even though it doesn’t have great graffiti in it, everyone fell in love with the story. That started a whole new scene and go-go graffiti went out and the new, New York style graffiti, came in.

Dan really started coming out in ’86 when that transition was happening. I always say Dan was the last of the D.C. go-go writers and he just kept it going during this new phase of the NY style. He kept at it well into 2000 with that same, native D.C. style. I’ve always admired him or that because I basically abandoned that style. After visiting New York for four years, I came back to D.C. and fell in love with NY style straight letters. I changed my name to Ultra and started to do three to four straight letters a week. I got some notoriety from being up one big time instead of putting up a million smaller tags.

I started a crew called KGB in 1983, Krazy Graffiti Brothers, through sheer stubbornness we kept it going. Our 35th anniversary is next year and we are always adding new people. I’m 52, so I’ve slowed down but I still love street stuff. Probably the only times I ever went out and hit The Red Line, aimed at trains was with Dan. Dan was huge into doing the Red line and it was near his neighborhood.

Photo by Vanessa Castro, courtesy of Roger Gastman

The only times I ever done the Red Line was with Dan. I first met Dan in 1989 after coming back from New York and I didn’t know any graffiti writers. Most of them were much younger than me. I met him in a huge train tunnel system here called The Wall of Fame, aka Art Under Pressure, in Southwest D.C. And he was that dude, they were doing articles about him and making bootleg shirts. When I met him he was with a bunch of suburban teenagers. I told him he should come hang out with us because we were from DC and adults. Not to put anyone down, but all these kids were drinking and I’ve never smoked or drank in my life. So I told Dan to come chill with us because we were all about graffiti and not acting crazy.

In ’92, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved with my kid to my own apartment. And Dan didn’t have a place to stay so he stayed in my living room. We ended up living together for four years. He was probably the easiest guy I ever had live in my living room. People ask how I put up with it but if you knew Dan, he was a super quiet dude and super humble. He didn’t cause any ruckus and was super good with my kids. At that time I lived in Northwest D.C. on 13th and Massachusetts Ave. We’d watch Videograf with my crew at my house, making big pots of spaghetti and we would all be chilling. It was fun times.

Dan had a pretty different style compared to everybody else. Dan got up a lot and he got some crazy spots. He climbed up the brickwork of this bridge on the Red Line and he just did a rally of Cool “Disco” Dan tags all the way up this brickwork, I don’t know how high in the air it goes. It is essentially a flat faced bridge and he climbed up there. He did his style, which a lot of people thought was played out in the ’90s, and was doing what people now call a rally. He was doing that when nobody else was doing it. He did a lot of stuff on the Red Line. People may dispute it because he did mostly tags, but I think he’s an exception to that rule about tags not counting as much as pieces or burners.

All this week I wanted to go out and take pictures of Dan’s work. Just going out to document what is still there. I don’t know how long it will last but I’m hoping that he is universally admired, even to people who never met him. Especially in graffiti there are some idiots. You can’t be out there 24 hours a day protecting it.   

My crew is more of a throwback to the old time D.C. crew idea. When we formed our crew we didn’t know what a graffiti crew was. It was more of a fighting thing. We used to eat and go out together. We had KGBreakfast where everyone would meet at a restaurant after bombing all night and have breakfast. There would be 20 people sitting at a restaurant at 5 a.m. and Dan would be there. Dan pretty much got along with everybody. He was quiet in public, but if we were sitting in a room he would be just as outspoken as anybody. Going back to the fighting aspects of crews, I’ve only ever seen Dan get angry and fight twice, and both of those times were for me. He was not a guy naturally going out looking for a fight but if his boys were being threatened, you could definitively get the wrath. Definitely a cool dude, and for the status he had and deserved, he was definitely humble.

Dan was definitely the dude that kept it old school D.C., 100 percent—with his tag and how he acted. D.C is a very much a DIY kind of place, if you know about our go-go, hardcore/straightedge or hip hop scene. It is almost like we know that we are never going to be on that NY status, so we kind of think local and create things locally with no apologies. I kind of think Dan was that. His whole life was about doing it yourself. He created his tag, his style, kept it going and stood by it for decades. I think that’s why a lot of people are upset now that he is gone. You always knew that if someone was going to represent for D.C., it was going to be Dan, and now that person is gone. It is definitely more than just a symbol of D.C., he was an active muscle of this city, actively producing and creating this unapologetically D.C. style. Even people who don’t realize what they lost, they kind of do in the back of their head.

On August 19 a public memorial service will be held for Dan in D.C. at the 9:30 Club (815 V St NW). Doors will open at 11 a.m. and the service will last from noon until 1 p.m. Dan’s original art is available for purchase online and 100% of sales on his website will go towards an official memorial. 

Rest In Peace Cool “Disco” Dan
Cool “Disco” Dan Art Courtesy of Roger Gastman

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