I think of graffiti art as urban elegy. It’s the voice of the unheard, an epitaph of those who feel silent. As many readers of this blog know, Cool “Disco” Dan is a famous graffiti artist in Washington, D.C. who has been a subject in my poems. He began back in the 1980s and has left his mark in D.C. ever since. Last night, I saw one of the sold-out showings of a new documentary film “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” at the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. This film, a 12-year labor by producer Roger Gastman and writer/director Joseph Pattisall, tells the sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful story of Cool “Disco” Dan, as well as the story of D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s.
In some ways, this documentary recounts a sad story. Daniel Hogg was born in Boston and moved with his parents to D.C. when he was quite young. After experiencing a series of losses– his parents’ divorce, his father’s death, he took to graffiti art that was intimately tied to Washington, D.C.’s Go-Go music scene. The documentary traces the interesting relationships between the music, the Go-Go clubs where the music was performed, the neighborhood “crews” who often came to the clubs, and the eventual crack crisis that caused so much suffering for many people in D.C.
Born Daniel Hogg, he took the graffiti “tag” Cool “Disco” Dan because he was teased as a kid with the name Disco Danny. He made it his goal to “be” all over D.C. and he succeeded. From the sides of the city’s Metro buses to walls along the Metro’s Red Line, his simple tag became a familiar part of Washington’s landscape. Usually, he just used his name or tag. Occasionally he added signature phrases like “You can’t see me” and “I’m back.”
The film tells of a young man who experiences great losses, including various shades of mental illness. He apparently disappeared for long periods of time into homelessness. He lived in a couple of group homes which provided some level of stability, but none of these proved permanent. Today, as the post-film Q & A revealed, Dan is still homeless though the movie’s creators stay in contact with him and his family. While Dan kept free of the drug and alcohol troubles that plague so many, he could not escape various mental health issues.
Since I first moved to D.C. in 2000, I’ve had a love for graffiti art and Cool “Disco” Dan’s tags were my introduction to this art. My friend, artist Jefferson Pinder first pointed out some of Dan’s tags to me on the Red Line near my Brookland home. I loved their simplicity, their occasional extra signature phrases. I’ve mused and written often on the invisibility one might feel, when compelled to paint one’s name in four-foot high letters. I’ve also appreciated the memorializing facet of D.C. graffiti art. I often think of D.C.’s graffiti as urban elegies.
In Meeting Bone Man, my first book of poems, I have a three-poem series of Cool Disco Dan poems. I’ve often been asked to read them at various places and almost every time I do, anyone connected to D.C. acknowledges them. In my new book of poems, Gospel of Dust, coming out this June, I have another three-poem series called “If Cool Disco Dan Was A Priest.” I hope all of these poems honor Daniel Hogg in some way. I hope they lift up his art. I hope the poems also serve as a kind of urban elegy, giving voice to those who feel so isolated that they need to paint their names in the middle of the night to remind the rest of us that they’re here.