In a town teeming with museums that tend to be grand and formal, the Graffiti Museum is neither. From the sidewalk, it looks a little too modest to own the title “museum.” But step inside its unassuming walls — covered with work by foundational D.C. writers, as graffiti artists are called — and you’ll find a history that couldn’t be told more honestly anywhere else.
In recent years, graffiti has moved into the mainstream: Graffiti-inspired paintings auction for millions; popular brands sell apparel emblazoned with signature tags; institutions as polished as the Museum of Modern Art display street art. Along the way, graffiti has moved further from the communities — often poor or otherwise marginalized — that pioneered it.
For an art form that was nurtured in the streets and is apathetic about (if not antagonistic to) institutional prestige, the 14th Street Graffiti Museum, with its humble digs, feels true to graffiti’s under-the-radar, after-midnight origins. Under the guidance of curator and artist Cory Stowers and his encyclopedic knowledge of local writers, the space gives graffiti the respect and attention of a museum, without uprooting it from its context.
Stowers hopes the museum will bring foot traffic to local businesses in an area that has been hit hard by the pandemic and the temporary closure of Metro’s nearby bus garage for renovation. The term “museum” is meant as part of the appeal. “It gives it a certain cachet,” says Stowers. “We could have painted this anywhere and just not put a title on it, and most people would not care, but because I called it a museum, people care.In designing the space, Stowers leaned into the weighty title. The outer wall highlights active graffiti artists from his Double Down Kings crew. The inner wall — over a backdrop painted with images of such graffiti paraphernalia as black books and markers — chronicles a history of D.C. graffiti in which legendary writer Cool “Disco” Dan, depicted in a vibrant mural, is the cornerstone.
Danny Hogg, who died in 2017, was notoriously elusive, his simple tag, scrawled in plain letters, nearly ubiquitous. On the walls of go-go venues, and surfaces high and low along the Red line, he shouted for attention. In person, he was said to be quiet, even awkward. In the mural by Erick B. Ricks, the myth and the man merge. Ricks casts Hogg in deep purple and sublime orange, arms outspread, and with two halos — one gold and the other patterned with the D.C. flag — circling his head. He looks Christlike.
The man in the mural seems to gaze toward a tag by R.E. Randy, D.C.’s first graffiti “king,” according to Hogg, and one of Hogg’s biggest influences. Stowers refers to the tag, which features the logo of go-go band Rare Essence, as the “most D.C. thing in the space.”
For Stowers, the museum is as much an opportunity to honor Hogg as a chance to widen public discourse about graffiti. Hogg straddled the two major graffiti movements in D.C.: the go-go style — defined by simple lettering that would appear outside music venues — and the more stylized New York graffiti that began to appear in D.C. along with the rise of the District’s straight edge and hardcore punk movements.
“There are not really broader conversations, outside of ‘Disco’ Dan, about old-school graffiti and why it’s important, but we are trying to change that,” says Stowers. “Artists in the culture in the late ’80s early ’90s — like SMK and SEK — really paved the way for what we are doing today. They should not be relegated to footnotes.”
The artists known as SMK and SEK, and other members of the Fierce Fighter Crew (or FFC), which Dan would ultimately join, fill the wall with his mural. Throughout the space you can see how graffiti has evolved, from the austere letters of R.E. Randy and graffiti “queen” known as Lisa of the World to SMK’s colorful, New York-inspired work. One of the first artists to incorporate mural elements, Mesk, whose “Power to Love” piece is featured on the courtyard’s back wall, laid the foundation for the younger artists featured on the exterior walls of the museum.
Connecting the dots between the plain scrawl of Cool “Disco” Dan and today’s loud, three-dimensional graffiti writing might seem overly generous. But even if the style is different, the endeavor is the same: to reclaim a piece of urban space and declare defiantly, simply, purely — maybe even profoundly — “I am here.”
If you go
14th Street Graffiti Museum
14th and Crittenden streets NW.
Hours: Open daily, beginning Oct. 3, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.