Filming the Phantom

The story behind what inspired filmmakers Roger Gastman and Joseph Pattisall to track down one of D.C.’s most infamous graffiti artists, Cool “Disco” Dan.

The story behind what inspired filmmakers Roger Gastman and Joseph Pattisall to track down one of D.C.’s most infamous graffiti artists, Cool “Disco” Dan.

By Tim Regan

Photos courtesy of Adam Amengual and Needham Smith

The curved letters. The funky, drooping serifs. The goofy name. During the 1980s and 90s, the tag of Cool “Disco” Dan was plastered onto just about everything in the D.C. area.

“I knew the name, as did most people who lived in D.C., Maryland or Virginia,” says Roger Gastman, 35, executive producer of “The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan.” The film’s director–Joseph Pattisall, 36–also remembers seeing the graffiti everywhere. “Everyone from D.C. during that time period relates to it,” he says. But nobody knew the man the Washington Post once called the “urban phantom.”

Pattisal and Gastman might just be the perfect pair to tell Dan’s story. Growing up in Bethesda, Md., Gastman ran an alternative culture magazine–“While You Were Sleeping,”–out of his childhood bedroom. He also helped produce the 2010 underground hit, “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Pattisall, who still lives in Alexandria to this day, hones his skills by directing music videos that air on MTV, BET and FUSE.

The filmmakers have different tales of meeting the legend. “If you knew him well enough, you knew where to look,” says Gastman, who interviewed Dan in his book, “Free Agents: A History of Washington D.C. Graffiti.” “I had heard a rumor that he sat on a bench and sold Go-go tapes” says Pattisall, who was with a friend when they met in 1997. “I happened to be carrying a Super-8 camera with me, and I got him to do a little interview right then and there.”

That initial interview spurred a decade-long friendship, and can be seen in the film. “When you meet Dan,” he says, “the mystery continues, even when you know who he is.”

Narrated by D.C. native Henry Rollins, and featuring famed musician Chuck Brown alongside former mayor Marion Barry, “The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan” follows D.C.’s turbulent drug wars, its celebrated Go-go music (think funk, early hip hop and R&B mixed into one) and its violent street conflicts, all seen through the eyes of the city’s most visible graffiti artist at the time.

Though there’s no theatrical release slated for 2013 yet, check cooldiscodan.net for updates.

 

(March 2013)

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