Chuck Brown, 1986. Photo by Dean Rutz for the Washington Times.
The 1980s were a hard chapter in Washington, D.C.’s history. Known as the “murder capital” shortly after the decade ended, the city’s underground music and graffiti scenes nevertheless thrived, helping to shape D.C. into what it is today. The new exhibit “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s” (through April 7) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art shows how it was done.
The area harbored one of the most tenacious hardcore scenes in the country; punk had a similarly robust presence. But go-go music (a fiercely regional mash-up of danceable funk, R&B and early hip-hop) and the graffiti that stemmed from it became the city’s unofficial calling card, despite what was happening elsewhere.
“The go-go music and the art that came out of it, at least as far as the world outside D.C. was concerned, were almost totally overshadowed by the hip-hop culture that sprung up in New York at the same time,” says Roger Gastman, a D.C. local, graffiti historian and co-curator of the show. “So in some ways that neglect cycled around again and made that scene even more self-reliant.”
The exhibit illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the music and the street art of the period through posters, photographs, graphic art and other sundry items. Special programs and lectures punctuate the run, one with Gastman himself, who has written a dozen books on graffiti. But a documentary called The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan is a particular highlight. Narrated by musician and activist Henry Rollins, it opened in conjunction with the exhibit and pays homage to Cool “Disco” Dan, a graffiti artist who many consider the father of a movement that made an unquestionable impact on a once questionable city.
“There are many graffiti writers who have done more graffiti or done it more skillfully and in greater quantity,” says assistant curator Caleb Neelon. “But Cool ‘Disco’ Dan made himself a beloved, integral part of his city and a symbol of an era.” 500 17th St. NW; 202-639-1700; corcoran.org.