Danny Cortes traces the inspiration for his work back to his childhood, where he remembers seeing commercials for action figures like G.I. Joe.
“I was never interested in the figures themselves. I was always interested in the background,” Cortes says. “Regular things that looked miniature, I was fascinated by them.”
Using materials like foamcore, chipboards and acrylic paint, Cortes makes dioramas, or “miniatures”, of recognizable elements of the New York City streetscape. He’s created replicas of bodegas, stoops, handball courts, and even the beloved Mister Softee truck–all in precise detail.
“It’s like toys for adults,” Cortes tells BK Reader.
Making miniatures has been a hobby of Cortes’ for years, but boredom from last year’s pandemic lockdown inspired him to make them more often.
“I said, ‘Let me pick up this hobby that I had for a while and let me just play around with it a little more’,” Cortes says.
And soon, he couldn’t stop making them.
That’s when family and friends began urging Cortes to post his work on social media. He started with Instagram, and later Tik Tok. “It got serious when I started posting it and people started saying, ‘How much?’”
Cortes never intended to sell his pieces, but as his popularity grew, he left his day job and became a full-time artist and has had a continuous stream of orders since October.
Cortes’ social media audience continues to grow by the thousand. As of June 2021, he had amassed more than 10,000 followers on Instagram and 13,000 followers on TikTok. “I only had like a thousand followers in January,” he says.
His most popular post on TikTok features a miniature of the street pole at the corner of Dekalb and Knickerbocker avenues, the heart of Cortes’ Bushwick neighborhood. Cortes believes this post is what caught the eye of the The New York Daily News, who’s recent feature of Cortes has only increased the demand for his work.
Now, he’s taking calls from directors about potential film projects. And he recently completed a replica of a handball court for handball star Timothy “Timbo” Gonzalez.
Cortes couldn’t believe it when Harlem rapper Dave East messaged him on Instagram to commission a piece. “I thought it was a joke at first. I have friends who are superfans,” Cortes says.
For East, Cortes created the storefront of an iconic bodega in Harlem, plastered with posters of East on the façade.
Many of Cortes’ pieces take on a sentimental nature. One of his pieces, a replica of a bodega which closed due to gentrification, was buried with the bodega’s owner when he died in April. Cortes is currently working on another replica of the bodega for the owner’s children.
The pieces are personal for Cortes too, who says he’s bringing to life a disappearing version of New York.
“I’m making what I remember as a kid, the 90s feel. That’s why every time I post something I try to implement it with music, cause nostalgia goes together with music.” says Cortes.
All of Cortes’ miniatures are made at his home studio in Bushwick, where he lives with his wife — who helps with cutting and painting when the orders get too overwhelming.
Despite being swamped with orders, Cortes still sees the importance in creating for himself. “I always try to make something outside the commissions, for me, to keep my engagement.”
You can find Danny on Instagram @deezdiorama.
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