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