“I was sitting next to a dildo factory and a magician. There were just so many things going on.”—Rob Brulinski

Rob Brulinski: Co-Author, Welcome to the Copycat / Baltimore MD

“i was sitting next to a dildo factory and a magician. there were just so many things going on.”—rob brulinski

How were you introduced to the Copycat?
I am from Baltimore, MD, so I have known about the Copycat since I was 18. It was just something that I knew was there. “What is that place?” I couldn’t even fathom living there at that age. I wanted to, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that. It has a lure to it. I lived there for a year, but I’ve been in that place on and off for a while.

What projects are you working on now?
I am photographing gas station attendants and blue-collar workers and trying to correlate them with artists photographing artists. I have been interviewing really eccentric people in America and trying to tie it into the whole theme of being an American in a really positive way. This whole idea got started with the Works Progress Administration and how inspired I was by that. The artists in the WPA at that time pumped out so much great and beautiful work.

What is it about that work that you are interested in?
I like the documentary of it. I like showing the human condition and the history of it. When you are taking someone’s portrait, you are showing their backstory. It’s not just a person on the street. It’s not just an artist. It’s not just a struggling person. I like getting down into that.

Adam Lempel, Resident The Copycat: Photo Essay on Artist Commune

courtesy of rob brulinski + alex wein

Do you see a link between this and your interest in the Copycat?
Yeah. I definitely do. I think this would be the next step up, to go from a building to a city to a state to a country and to continue that in some way. I don’t know how likely it is to be the same story, but it is still that same trajectory. There was a book that I used to read when I was a little kid called, What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry. It was a children’s book, but I still ask that: “What do people do all day?” I sit in the car and I see people walking around and doing shit that I am not doing. I am always thinking that somebody is having a better time than me. Or they are going from Point A to Point B and sometimes I don’t have a Point B. I need more direction. I think that’s what I’m trying to figure out. What the hell are people doing all day?

How would you characterize the residence at the Copycat?
The people who visit are generally art students or people who are there to see something, like a show, or a gallery space, or a theater performance. The people who live there actually vary. There are some students, but usually it is older people. That’s what was really interesting to me, not finding the MICA students but finding these older people. It was like, “What the hell are you doing here?” There was W___, a retired social studies teacher, who lived on the B side and his whole room was full of instruments. He was retired, in the Copycat, smoking joints, and playing all the music that he wanted with this plethora of instruments. And that’s beautiful. It’s like, that guy has got it going on. And then there was another older guy, running a shop out of the Copycat making jewelry, and he had six employees in his spot. Meanwhile, they were building the design school next door, and they tore a hole in his wall! He could see the tractor-trailers and trucks moving, and people were looking in at seven people making jewelry. There was a doctor and his wife that lived there, just because. The weirdest one was the guy who sold real estate. It looked like a regular space, just totally normal, and he just happens to be there. I could never figure out why he wanted to live there.

Why do you keep returning to it?
It’s the sense of duty and the sense of freedom that you get from a place like that. As an artist, I can go in there and meet people who are taking their life just as seriously as I am, or just as not-seriously as I am. I never know what I am going to wind up with. When I lived there, there was never a dull moment. My neighbors were magicians. And I never saw another neighbor, but I knew she sold sex toys out of her apartment online. That was her thing. I thought it was hilarious. I was sitting next to a dildo factory and a magician. There were just so many things going on.

Alice Dan-Ding, Resident The Copycat: Photo Essay on Artist Commune

courtesy of rob brulinski + alex wein

I like going there because it reminds me to be creative, to research, to continue to be an artist, to continue to be myself. I never went to art school. I was never told how to make art, and I would really like to carry that forward. I think that’s what really unwinds students and people who are creative to go, “Oh wait, I can do this.” This is just being yourself. You don’t need to replicate what is on Instagram, or what someone in New York is doing because you are not there. You are in a different world, a different zone. It allows you to do that in a way that doesn’t stress you out. I think that the best example that I can give is when Wham City lived there. Wham City moved to Baltimore to live in the Copycat, because it was cheap as fuck. And then they took that idea further, and said, “We are going to be artists. And we are going to share ideas without any objections or any prejudice. Nobody’s going to make fun of us here.” That’s great. We all have those friends who are artists or painters and are fragile as shit. If you put them in there, it is a better scenario. It’s like an institution. It was really nice to move in and meet people who were gonna inspire you.

What makes the Copycat a draw for this kind resident?
I asked that question: “Why do you want to live here? What do you do all day?” And people said, “Because I want to. Freedom.” They want the freedom, even if it’s an illusion. The freedom to do whatever they want, to make whatever they want. To act and feel however they want without those pressures of societal norms. When your neighbor is a magician, and the other guy is in a punk band, and the other people are doing LGBT theater, you are left with nothing but to be yourself. You have no way to fit in besides being yourself.

Chelsea Harman, Resident The Copycat: Photo Essay on Artist Commune

courtesy of rob brulinski + alex wein

You know your time is limited there. You don’t want to stay there for three years. That is a long time to stay in a building when it is 100° outside and 200° inside. It is really the sense of, “I am here to make something and figure out what I want to do as an artist.” I can only speak for artists, but there were people who lived there that were just retail people. They were figuring themselves out. You are definitely there to transform yourself, in a way, and to learn. There were certain things that I don’t think I would ever have done if I had not lived in that building. When you live there, you also have a community. You have the ability to connect and share and respond.

How would you characterize the projects that come out of there?
Music is probably the biggest factor. A lot of albums are recorded there. The Dan Deacon albums, Double Dagger albums; any band that has a say and is going to be labeled in a Wikipedia page for the Baltimore music scene has done something in that building. I can even go on a limb and say, anyone who has done something in Baltimore, as a contemporary artist, has done something with that building. They’ve collaborated with someone in that building. They made things. There were Adult Swim episodes made in that building. I am still finding remnants from the past, from the ’90s. I just got this new job, and my boss lived there in the ’90s when there were a bunch of crackheads, and everyone was doing punk shows. It’s all connected. It is like Point 1 on the map. When you look at the Station North logo, there’s the Copycat building in it. It has expanded beyond that, but it is like the OG.

How collaborative is it?
That’s a good question because now we have the Internet and we have access to so much knowledge. It’s so funny that we still see flyers up. Somebody took the time to make that flyer, and to go spend their time in the ninth circle of Kinkos Hell to print that shit out, and put it up on poles all across Baltimore. Then someone also took the time to make a website just for those flyers, and to constantly update them, just because they felt the urge to.

It is like a rite of passage to even be there. You get to say, “Yeah, I was there. I remember that. I know that person.” And also, “I made this there. I learned that there.” Especially in Baltimore, it would be weird if you wanted to be an artist and didn’t try to do something in that building, because it has been around for so long.

David Conroy, Resident The Copycat: Photo Essay on Artist Commune

courtesy of rob brulinski + alex wein

You are allotted your space. If you are living in a huge space, and you have eight roommates, and two of those roommates bring four other people illegally in, now you have a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of rent to pay. And if you don’t have a real job, you better find some fucking shows, and you’re going to start talking to some other people about doing stuff in that building. There is a lot of connectivity going on in a space like that. It allows and forces you to open your doors to strangers for the sake of art; for the sake of a couple dollars and a good time, even.

Does the Baltimore community, as a whole, value the building?
The people who live there have a Baltimore mentality. If you could pay your electric bill by selling your work, that’s great; you don’t walk around acting like an asshole if you can do that. You do that in New York. Somebody asked me what the difference is between Baltimore and New York, because I lived there. In New York, people are like, “I can do this. I pay my rent by carrying this fucking guitar around.” In Baltimore, you can’t do that. I think that applies to the people who are running something in the Copycat. They are not talking about it, they are just happy to do it. They are prideful, but they are happy to do it. I love it when someone gets what the Copycat is. When I have to explain it to somebody’s mom, they are like, “What? What is this?”

How would you characterize the Baltimore art scene?
It’s growing. It’s changing. Baltimore arts did not start because the mayor said, “Oh, we love art.” Or when the government said, “You know what Baltimore needs? Fucking murals.” It was a great chemical mix of having an art school there in a city with cheap rent, and of having a slumlord who needs to rent out building space. It’s unique. Copycat reflects Baltimore, that sense of DIY and self-sustainability. Someone put it perfectly for me a couple of weeks ago: “Baltimore doesn’t think about the future; they only think about the now.” New York thinks they know what their art scene is going to be like in ten years. They have the future set in stone. Baltimore has no fucking clue how the art scene is going to be a year from now. I have no idea. I have a pretty good idea of what New York is going to be like and San Francisco. I don’t know where that building is going to stand in five years. The scene is becoming gentrified, but we are also having a weird conversation about it.

The artists need to somehow retain cheap rent, straight up. I am already noticing that people are moving out of Hampden and Remington. Hampden is now becoming expensive, which is so funny to me, because I used to live there for $250 a month. It’s expensive now. All of these artists are migrating and going to Waverly. And it’s scary, because you may have your car broken into, but it is cheap as fuck. We need cheap rent. We need galleries; we don’t have any galleries here. Alex Wein and I made this book and we can’t show these pictures anywhere in Baltimore. Nobody wants them. It blows my mind, because there are so many of them, and we need the space. We have a book with it. We have a video to show. I get to talk to great people like you, and get all of these crazy interviews, but that’s it. So for artists, they need cheap rent. They need the space to continue to create and they need access to grant money, because what is the national average of an artist? $30,000 or $25,000 year? Way below janitor, that’s for sure. And it’s that conversation about gentrification. We don’t need that shit. Remington has a new Walmart, and Hampden now has a Target. And we can’t let schools dictate community, because I think that’s what’s going to happen. MICA and Johns Hopkins buy up a lot of property. They’re building new houses just for students. It’s like a big daycare. It’s crazy.

The music scene in Baltimore has rebounded and allowed people to say, “Let’s go there!” It’s easy. It’s just so much more accessible. I know people are painting. I know people who are making zines. I know people are doing sculpture. A lot of that has to do with the schools. We are finally reaching a time where people can say, “I graduated, and I don’t need to move anywhere; I can stay here and be an artist.”

Why do they want to stay?
People are now saying, “Wait! There are artists here. Let’s capitalize on that.” I’ve had so many conversations with people who are 25 and thinking, “Damn, I’m going to buy a house here. I want to go to Remington and spend $80,000 on a house.” And they are still wearing their jeans from six years ago. There is a sense of the future. It’s that parallel where Baltimore is in the now: “How can I stay here a little bit longer?” I even tried to leave this place six times. I keep coming back, and now I’m going to get a fucking house, like everyone else.

I wonder if Baltimore is just a smaller Detroit.
Yeah. That’s interesting. Detroit is huge. Detroit is crazy. Think of all of the musicians that they have pumped out. Eminem, ICP, Kid Rock, Witch House; they get the weirdest shit. The temperature up there…They are all staying in their basements and making crazy shit. I would say that Baltimore’s brother and sister would be Detroit and New Orleans. They are given that space to go do whatever they want.

The community seems self-aware, and therefore collaborative.
Yeah, we are definitely collaborative. That’s what a community needs. That’s why there are now four fucking art districts, because people are hanging out, eating dinner together, and doing a potluck thing. “We are a collective now, and we are a studio now, and we are going to make music videos now, and we are going to put shows on now.” That is happening across the board, across the city, in a lot of areas. That is why Single Carrot Theater is a big place. It is next to a five-star restaurant, which is ridiculous. Or four? I don’t know what it is, but it is expensive as fuck. Yes, it has to be collaborative. It’s small though. Baltimore is Smalltimore. Everyone going down Charles Street knows everyone else.

Monica Mirable, Resident The Copycat: Photo Essay on Artist Commune

courtesy of rob brulinski + alex wein

How do financial restrictions impact the decision to work together?
It allows creativity. If anyone ever comes to you and says, “I got a job for you and we have no restrictions and unlimited funds,” don’t take that job because you’re fucked. Then it has to be the best thing ever in the world. But you don’t have to make the best thing ever in the world. It just has to be creative. You just have to make. And then you let other people decide that for you. When I made my video, we had no budget. That was just people purely going, “Yeah, I love pizza and beer and being on film. I’ll be there.” Then they spend their day doing that. That’s incredible. I can go from not knowing anyone to having 25 people. That’s crazy. In what other field of work could you do that?

Is there a lot of back and forth between different genres of makers?
All of Future Islands’ work is done by painters. The covers are paintings. There is definitely that collaboration. Double Dagger and Post Typography. How many times have they made a cover for someone for free, just because they are from Baltimore? To get that hook up is crazy. Those dudes are making shit for Time magazine, and then they’re like, “Alright, here’s your cover.” That’s sick.

What is it about that space that makes it conducive?
The Copycat is the most confusing building I have ever seen. I know because when I made the book, we had to make the table of contents, and it was A B C D F. There is a sixth floor on one side. It’s crazy, the whole building is split up in a way that is just as DIY as anything else. The third floor shares one electric bill. Some places are very small. Other places you share a shower with six people. What the space does for people is it allows them to make it whatever the hell they want. If you are a painter, you are going to fuck those walls and floors up with paint. And you don’t have to worry about it. There is no security deposit. Nobody is going to come in and say, “There’s paint on the floor here. You don’t get your deposit.” When you don’t have to worry about the repercussions of money, or if your neighbor is getting angry because of the noise, then you are more willing to be creative and experiment to create work. Or the other option is, you can get a full-time job and be a photographer. That sucks.

If you could re-engineer the Copycat, what would you do to it?
I would make the building rent controlled for 50 years. I would make sure everyone had their own electric, which is necessary. I would continue to have the zoning of that place as industrial/residential, because I think that is very important. When you start getting into, “I want to make a company. I want to start doing woodworking.” You can’t do that in a lot of places. I want people to be able to do that. I want to give them tax breaks. If you live at the Copycat, you get a tax break. Any work that you sell in that building is tax-free.