In March 2020, Danny Cortes was already facing a crisis — he was out of work, in the middle of a divorce and serving a four-year probation sentence for selling drugs — when Covid hit. He found himself isolated and devoting an unhealthy amount of time to Instagram.
Idly scrolling his feed, he noticed a diorama of a World War II scene, then a model railroad set, then intricate, hyper-realistic models of movie sets.
He was drawn to the remarkably robust community of miniature makers. A longtime collector of action figures with time on his hands and not much else to do, he started tinkering. Using poster board from a 99-cent store, he built what was familiar, an urban fixture that most New Yorkers walk past without a glance: a bodega icebox. And that tiny icebox — three inches tall and covered in reproductions of stickers by local graffiti crews — turned his life around.
“I loved that when I worked on a piece, I didn’t think about my problems — my divorce, the pandemic,” said Mr. Cortes. “It was an escape — like I’m meditating, literally floating. I didn’t have a problem in the world. I wanted that high again, I kept chasing that.”
From that one model, a kind of career unfolded, and in less than three years, Mr. Cortes has emerged as a sought-after artist, his miniatures collected by hip-hop stars and professional athletes. And the icebox, which has become his signature piece as his work evolved into more elaborate urban scenes, sold at Sotheby’s in 2022 for $1,890.
“Now I wake up,” Mr. Cortes reflected recently, “and I’m like, wow, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”
It was never his intention to become an artist. Early in the pandemic, Mr. Cortes landed a job doing maintenance and custodial work at a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, homeless shelter. He’d show up every morning in work boots and two masks, ready to clean and make repairs on the old building. It felt like a turnaround to a life with purpose: a steady job and a good relationship with his probation officer.
But the hobby that started as a matter of self-preservation was becoming a side hustle. He would always arrive at the shelter with tote bags of art supplies — markers, dowels, beads, Krazy Glue — and he would set up shop in an out-of-order bathroom, hunkering down in the ad hoc studio whenever there was a lull. He left his walkie-talkie on in case a supervisor called.
He started posting his creations on Instagram: his icebox, then a little dumpster and a graffiti-scrawled mailbox. His teenage daughter set up a TikTok account for him. Family and friends who followed him wanted pieces of their own. He was surprised they were willing to pay him $20 or $30 for a model.
A nine-inch replica of the street pole at the corner of DeKalb and Knickerbocker Avenues in Brooklyn was the first Cortes original to go viral. Soon, messages came from musicians, athletes and comedians — people he had heard of — wanting to buy his models. At first he was certain he was being punked. There was a request for a subway car, a pay phone, a model of Willie’s Burgers in Williamsburg. The rapper Dave East — verified by his blue check mark — commissioned a shoebox-size version of Hajji’s Deli, the Harlem bodega where the chopped cheese sandwich is said to have originated. Suddenly, paying his bills wasn’t the concern it had been in the past.
On a recent afternoon in his studio in a duplex in Bushwick, Brooklyn, next door to where he lives with his fiancée, he was using an airbrush to create shadows and rust on a startlingly realistic resin pay phone about the size of a soda bottle. Mr. Cortes, 43, has a baby face, a close-cropped haircut and his mother’s name, Rosa, tattooed on his knuckles. He showed off the freshly inked tattoo on his calf — an icebox — and tried to make sense of how he got to the point where he was exchanging Instagram messages with celebrities.
“If I was doing art, it would be vandalizing, graffiti. I did for a while — tagging walls and stuff,” he said. “It was something everyone did as a kid.” But it wasn’t something he was encouraged to pursue. His mother, who came to New York from Puerto Rico, always stressed the security of a nine-to-five job.
By June 2021, his finances sound, he got his parole officer’s permission to leave his custodian job and make miniatures full time. His boss at the shelter, whom he’d never met in person, sent him off with best wishes. She had followed him on social media without knowing he was her employee.
From the early days of poster board and glue guns, his work has continually evolved. Every negligible object can become something else. Matchsticks are the bars of fire escapes, a pushpin is a light bulb, a paper clip fixed just right to a Popsicle stick end is a padlock, plastic beads are wheels on a dumpster. Pastel shavings create the dirt and grime (and “attitude,” as Mr. Cortes describes it) caused by years of neglect.
He brings a sensitive eye to a vanishing New York and is driven to preserve a disappearing urban world.
“I love everything abandoned,” he said, “everything rusty, dirty. When you pass by a dumpster, most people usually don’t take time to stop, breathe, forget about your daily life in New York and the hustle and bustle. Take your time, look around. You can see beauty in a rust drip.”
He is also an unrepentant collector of Gen-X memorabilia. He-Man action figures and other toys from his childhood fill every inch of the shelves in his studio alongside his own miniatures, like a basketball court with a crooked hoop. He showed off a model of the East Harlem restaurant Rao’s, which he was presenting to the owner the next week.
“I’m a nostalgia junkie,” he said.
And there seems to be a broad audience for his kind of nostalgia. “It’s very clear that Danny is someone who lived and breathed hip-hop,” said Monica Lynch, former president of Tommy Boy Records, the independent label that signed Queen Latifah, De La Soul and Coolio, to name a few. She’s been a consultant to Sotheby’s on its dedicated hip-hop auctions, featuring art, posters, musicians’ clothing and artifacts since the auctions began in 2020.
A recent piece called “The Block” — a diorama inspired by Bushwick, the neighborhood where Mr. Cortes grew up — brought in $7,260 at a Sotheby’s auction this summer. Beyond the relief of being able to make money with his art, he also relishes a luxury he didn’t enjoy in his earlier entrepreneurial ventures on the street.
“I’m not paranoid when I’m making money the way I was when I was selling drugs,” he said.
He can imagine himself going to architecture school. Right now, however, his signature style has put him in demand as a set designer.
He was commissioned to create a life-size installation of Disco Fever and 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, buildings in the Bronx that played key parts in hip-hop’s earliest days, for the Hip Hop 50 concert at Yankee Stadium in August. The piece is now on tour and will be donated to the Universal Hip Hop Museum that’s being built in the Bronx.
Mr. Cortes was also invitedto show his work at Hip Hop Til Infinity, an immersive show at Hall des Lumières that is running until mid-September. He hand-painted 14 3D-printed versions of his singular icebox that sold at the gift shop for $300 each, a more accessible price than the completely handmade models, which go for up to $2,000.
For Mr. Cortes, though, his success is about more than making money and freedom from the unrelenting hustle that he grew up around. His parole officer still calls on him from time to time to talk to at-risk teenagers and young adults and encourage them to turn their lives around.
“You can always change, you can get out of your darkest times,” he said. “People speak to change, but if you don’t physically take action, all the manifesting in the world isn’t going to work. My main thing is to inspire those with their back against the wall. It’s never too late. I’m proof.”