“Everything Tells a Story”: Artist Creates Hyper Realistic Dioramas of ’90s New York City — Exclusive

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In early 2020, Danny Cortes was in the process of transforming his life. At the onset of the pandemic, he was unemployed and on probation. But by the following year, he’d turned a hobby he’d picked up for self-preservation into a full-time career. And today, his artwork sells for as much as $25,000 a piece. He started small, though — miniature, in fact. 

Cortes creates tiny, hyper realistic scenes and objects from New York City circa the late ’80s and early ’90s. Featuring rusty mailboxes and newspaper dispensers replete with graffiti, his nostalgic dioramas capture the essence of the time and place Cortes grew up. He made his first one, a single icebox in front of a bodega, just a few months into lockdown.

Now 43, the Brooklyn native has no formal training in the field; miniatures were his entree into the art world as an adult. But when he was a kid, he collected action figures, and would build backdrops for the toys like the kind he saw in their commercials.

“To promote the action figure, they would make these nice, beautiful diorama sets. I was always attracted to them, so I always asked my mom to get them for me, and she’s like, ‘No, dude, they don’t sell that,’” he recalled to Nice News, laughing. “So I would collect cereal boxes and stuff like that. And I would paint bricks and windows on them. Just zone out in my own fantasies.”  

Shortly before COVID-19 hit, Cortes had come across a social media post featuring an intricate diorama. Intrigued, he started following all sorts of other miniature artists, including those who created urban landscapes, like he now does. 

“That definitely brought me back to my creativity in my childhood,” said Cortes. “Like, I could go as far back as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and there were always miniatures involved.”

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He went out and purchased some X-acto knives, some paintbrushes, and a few other supplies, creating a couple pieces here and there. But it wasn’t until the pandemic forced the world into a state of suspended animation that he found himself with the time and inspiration to find a flow. 

“I was seeing YouTube videos of people making incredible dioramas,” he said. “And I was just falling in love with it. And then a light bulb just hit: ‘What happens if I document my era that I love so much, the New York City grimy, gritty ’80s and ’90s era that disappeared so fast in my neighborhood?’”

These days he’s got things like airbrushes and resin in his arsenal, but at the beginning, Cortes relied solely on basic materials. He used poster board from a dollar store to build that first icebox, mixed together Walmart paints to mimic the precise colors of rust, and printed out tiny signs and stickers that were emblematic of the era. 

Born and raised in Bushwick, Cortes reflected on the period he chose to capture in his art. “I’m actually chasing the nostalgia,” he said. “It was a certain time — even though my era was very gritty, grimy, dirty, you know, in the ghettos of where I lived. But it was beauty, like if you would just really stop and look, it was really beauty. Because everything tells a story.” 

© Lev Radin/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press Wire

He continued: “When you pass by a mailbox, people just see a dirty graffiti mailbox. But if you really, really pay attention to it, that mailbox saw things before us, you know, saw a lot of things. And it’s just a mystery of that. Let’s not complain about where we come from. Let’s just have more appreciation of where we come from.”

That sentiment clearly resonates with people. Encouraged by his mom and daughters to start sharing his work on social media, he began to attract attention for his unique pieces. And after a write-up in the Daily News, small commissions started coming in. Then, in 2021, Sotheby’s came calling, offering him a spot in a hip-hop focused auction. The first piece he’d ever made, the icebox, sold for $1,890 in 2022, per The New York Times

He’s come a long way from where he started. Though he found a job doing maintenance and custodial work at a homeless shelter in mid-2020, while serving four years probation for selling drugs, he now focuses on his art full time. His work is showcased in galleries, he’s been commissioned by celebrities like Russell Peters, and a private collector purchased one piece for a whopping $25,000. 

And he wants to branch out. “I want to get into set designing. It all intrigues me,” he shared, adding with a laugh: “I can’t wait until Hollywood commissions me and hires me to do a piece so they can blow it up or something.”

More than anything else, he wants his story and his artwork to offer hope to others. 

“I wanted to inspire, and also, just to show somebody that it’s never too late. You can have all these negativities around you and dark times and mental health, it doesn’t even matter. It’s just never too late. … Just believe in yourself because, you know, I’m proof. I’m proof.” 

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