The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan: the secret history of Chocolate City

DC in the 80s was a hellish place. It was a city plagued by poverty, murder and the scourge of the Crack Epidemic. I was shipped off to high school in nearby Maryland during that time, where my mostly white and affluent classmates would marvel that I lived in the sordid mess that was the District. I remember one of my classmates even told me, quite snottily, that in the suburbs, “At least we have trees!” (Please note that my house was directly across from Rock Creek Park, and we would get routine visits from deer, possum, and raccoons). My older brother was shot in the late 80s, after being carjacked.

During those turbulent times, if you rode the Metro, you saw the graffiti tag  Cool “Disco” Dan everywhere. On the buses, against the walls, on rooftops, under bridges. This mysterious artist’s (or vandal, depending on who you spoke to) signature  appeared everywhere in the Metro Area. Who was this person?

disco dan

The documentary The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan examines the man behind the tag. Dan was a man who started tagging in his teen years, fueled both by his love of the indigenous  Go Go scene and his own mental anguish. The film contextualized his avocation against the larger zeitgeist of the Reagan 80s, the Crack Epidemic, Go Go music and the heyday of Chocolate City. While not exactly agitprop, the emblematic logo was and still is a sign of times and of the DC that exists in the shadows of the federal government. Dan became a kind of folk hero.

Other things learned: the “Disco” nomenclature came from an episode of the 70s sitcom What’s Happening!! where there was a character named “Disco Danny.” Before I saw the movie, Cool “Disco” Dan himself was in the lobby, signing posters.

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