skip to main content
caption: Artist Dani Tirrell, photographed in 2017
Enlarge Icon
Artist Dani Tirrell, photographed in 2017
Credit: KUOW photo/Megan Farmer

'It’s about me getting back to myself.' Seattle artist explores identity in new photo series

Seattle art fans know Dani Tirrell as a dancer and choreographer. He's also a recipient of the 2019 Mayor’s Arts Award, and a beloved teacher at Northwest Tap Connection.

So it may have come as a surprise when, earlier this week, Tirrell published a series of self-portraits on Instagram.

Instead of dance images, Tirrell created these photos to explore identity -- specifically, what it means to be Black, male, and queer.

In each image, Tirrell wears full makeup in a range of colors, even glitter, is clad in elaborate outfits, and bathed in colored light. The artist shot the portraits on a personal cell phone, inspired by digital natives who have created short films on apps like Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitch.

Tirrell started exploring this new terrain last winter, posting photos on social media.

“I was like, ‘what happens if I took photos of the way I saw myself in the body I hold,” Tirrell says, “the complexities of male bodies in makeup, and expressing femininity.”

The photo series is titled “46,” an homage to the artist’s age, released on Tirrell’s birthday -- June 21. Tirrell noted in one of the Instagram posts that this was the first birthday without his mother, who died in February.

Although the work was created during the pandemic lockdown, Tirrell wants people to understand the photographs are not about Covid-19.

“I was afraid to put out any work,” Tirrell says, “because I didn’t want people to think it was in response to Covid, or Black Lives Matter.”

The self portraits may not be a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but anti-racism work is very much on Tirrell’s mind. Along with other local Black artists, Tirrell has explicitly called on Seattle cultural organizations to address institutional racism. In particular, Tirrell wants organizations that have profited from work Black artists have created to make serious structural changes.

“There’s been a reckoning,” Tirrell says. “I keep hearing that word. Bodies that are marginalized, especially Black bodies, Trans bodies, Queer bodies, disabled bodies. There’s no more we’re going to do to lift up your brand, your organization, if we’re not feeling lifted up.”

Under the mantle of his dance company Dani Tirrell and The Congregation, Tirrell will gather a group of Black artists Monday, June 29 at 3 p.m. for a panel discussion about the situation.

Tirrell will likely pivot back to dance-making when public health conditions allow. But performing arts venues and clubs are still shut down to prevent transmission of coronavirus, and with the current uptick in recorded cases, officials haven’t given the go-ahead for even limited reopening.

In the meantime, the enforced slowdown has offered Tirrell an opportunity to step back from the demands of a normally busy public schedule to take time for self-reflection.

“It’s about me getting back to myself,” Tirrell says. “These photos, it’s not about me making money. I just needed to tap back into who I was.”

Dani Tirrell and the Congregation’s Conversation: When You Move I Move will stream live on Facebook from 3-5 p.m. on Monday, June 29.