By Sarah Newman, Curator of Contemporary Art

In the photograph, a girl, maybe fifteen years old, crouches against a wall, trash scattered around her. Her pose is stiff and rehearsed—contrived to show off the handgun she points skyward with her right hand, the fan of cash in her left, and her gleaming white sneakers. But even more than her carefully selected props, the girl calls attention to the writing scrawled on the wall behind her. The words “Cool Ass Lisa of the World ” hover above her pointed gun. Even more than her money and clothes, the tag affirms her status. When she is gone, her name will remain.

Cool Ass Lisa
LISA OF THE WORLD, c. 1985. Photo courtesy of LISA OF THE WORLD.

It is a cliché to say you live by your name in Washington, D.C. Yet as much as that has always been true for the politicians and lobbyists involved in the official business of the nation’s capital, during the 1980s it was of critical concern to people living in the shadows of that business. Pump Me Up explores the various local subcultures during this period and the ways that artists, musicians, and ordinary people strove to make their name, and their mark, on the city.

Exhibition curator Roger Gastman describes how, in the wake of the riots of 1968, Washington was a burned-out city, with entire streets vacated, huge segments of the population having fled for the suburbs. Relatively empty and outside of the official spotlight, the city was a blank slate waiting to be filled. People rushed to fill the void, in a sort of primal assertion of their presence—a desire to be recognized.

COOL “DISCO” DAN at Good Hope Road, Southeast Washington, 2008.
Photo by Rosina Teri Memolo. Collection of Roger Gastman.

Graffiti writers scratched and sprayed their names on buildings, rooftops, and on the sides of buses. People in the audiences of Go-Go concerts waited for their names to be called out by the band, a sign that they had “arrived.” Vacant buildings around the city were colonized by artists in search of studio and gallery space. Musicians occupied empty warehouses, practicing and playing impromptu gigs. Bands and promoters blanketed walls and lampposts with posters printed by the Globe Poster Company, colorful and ubiquitous announcements of performances.

Riders on the Metro’s Red Line during the 80s remember COOL “DISCO” DAN’s tag appearing from one end of the line to the other, new examples popping up seemingly every day in rich neighborhoods and poor, seen by businessmen and cleaning women, bridging geography and class. Dan recalls,

“I was just getting my name up. That was my first priority… I had to be where the scene was. It was all about getting up, going to the Go-Go’s, getting your name on Go-Go tapes, letting everyone know who you were.” The physical landscape of the city was transformed by the actions—and the drive—of COOL “DISCO” DAN and others.

Pump Me Up explores the landscape and the culture of this period—Go-Go, graffiti, punk, hardcore, graphic design, fine art, and the heady relationships between them.

T-shirt, 1980s. Collection of Roger Gastman.
T-shirt, 1980s. Collection of Roger Gastman.

Through the exhibition and book, Pump Me Up attempts to pull these threads together—to examine their relationships as well as their uniqueness, and to understand how what was happening in D.C. stands alone as much as it relates to what was going on around the country. This exploration could not happen at a better moment, when time provides enough distance to see the era clearly but when memories are still fresh enough to allow firsthand recollections. As an art school and a museum in the center of Washington, the Corcoran could not help but be a part of it what was going on during the 80s. Many of the most prominent artists and musicians, including Cynthia Connolly, Jeff Nelson, and Robin Rose, studied, played, and showed their art at the Corcoran. The Corcoran was fortunate to be a part of the scene at the time, and is honored to help look at it anew now.

Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art beginning February 23. Not in DC? Purchase the full catalog online and stay tuned for more inside coverage of the exhibition here on Unveiled.