DC’s Red Line Graffiti Art: Hope and Fragility

I developed my love of graffiti art along Washington, D.C. Metro’s Red Line when I lived in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C. The Metro’s Red Line, from Union Station to the Takoma Station , is a constantly changing museum of graffiti art. From the Metro track’s retaining walls to old warehouse roofs and walls, this few-mile stretch holds some of Washington’s best graffiti art. It’s now fifteen years ago that I first came to know the work of  Cool “Disco” Dan and his “You can’t see me” and “He’s back!” tags. I also came to know the work of prolific artists like JuJu, Nehi, Cert, Borf, and many others. I’ve written poems about many of these artists, especially Cool “Disco” Dan. I even did a poetry reading and workshop, for DC Knowledge Commons, which we conducted partly in a Metro train and partly on the platform at the Brookland Station and Takoma Stations. Recently, there has been some drama among the tags here.

After Sean Taylor’s death in 2007, a memorial mural for the Washington football hero went up quickly. It was unsigned and everyone loved it.  The simple “Sean Taylor RIP” stood untouched and revered, trackside at the Brookland Metro Station. A month or so ago, someone painted over the memorial, in weak black paint, promoting their blog. People were sad and angry. Different social media sites saw rants about it. The Washington Post even covered the story with a small blurb.

New Sean Taylor Memorial, re-painted by Red Line graffiti veterans.


The defaced Sean Taylor Memorial Mural. Photo Credit: Washington Post


Just a few days later, several graffiti artists who are well-known along the Red Line, re-painted the Sean Taylor Memorial, and signed their tags discreetly below it. Below is a close-up with some of the graffiti artists’ tags who re-painted it. Their new memorial includes the year, 2015. As chaotic and anarchic as the graffiti art world can seem, there are rules. Rarely do memorial murals get defaced. Simply out of respect and superstition, most graffiti artists will leave memorials alone, even if they’re in prime painting spaces like the Sean Taylor Memorial was.

When I heard the Sean Taylor Memorial had been defaced, I went to see it for myself and to photograph it. As I emerged onto the Brookland Station platform, I saw the mural in bright yellow, red, and white. No defacement to be seen. It was especially edifying to see the names of local graffiti artists so respectfully small below it. They were there less to say “We fixed it” as much as to say “We will protect it.” It was heartening to see memorial renewed so quickly. Thanks to NEHI, KUTHE, and CERT, among others.


Close-up of the graffiti artists’ tags who re-painted the Sean Taylor Memorial mural along the Red Line at the Brookland Station.

I also made a less than hopeful discovery along the Red Line in the last few weeks. Last summer I posted about the only remaining Cool “Disco” Dan tag I knew in the city. Back in the late 1980s, all through the 1990s, and occasionally in the 2000s,  Cool “Disco” Dan’s work could be found in many places throughout Washington. His tags eventually were painted over, worn away, or removed by Graffiti Abatement. As of a year or so ago, I only knew of one Cool “Disco” Dan that remained. It stood along the Red Line track, just south of the Brookland Metro Station, on an electronics box that rose about 5 feet high on a metal post. I’ve watched it over the last year. It’s small– just the tag Cool “Disco” Dan. It’s no more than a foot square.

The last Cool “Disco” Dan tag I know of in Washington, D.C. This is along the Red Line near the Brookland Metro Station.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed someone with a white paint pen painted over the bottom half of it. I was heartbroken. I’d like to think this new artist is young and doesn’t know what he (or she) did. But nonetheless, it’s disappointing. Above you can see a photograph I took of the tag last summer. I don’t want to photograph the defaced tag because I don’t want to give that artist any publicity. He (or she) should have known better.

But that fragility is part of what I love about graffiti art. It’s the Buddhist sand painting of urban America. You never know when the work will disappear. All art, life, and we too– we are all that fragile.


Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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