Atlantic Cities

The Irreplaceability of Baltimore's Copycat Building

The Irreplaceability of Baltimore's Copycat Building
The Copycat Project

Rob Brulinski and Alex Wein are just two of the hundreds of artists who have lived and worked over the past 30 years in Baltimore's Copycat building, a former bottle cap factory in the recently coined Station North district. But in the decades since it became the center of Baltimore's avant garde community, they're the first to document the building's entire history into a book.

The Copycat Project is a 160-page photographic catalog of current tenants, highlighting the potent creative scene that continuously germinates inside the old industrial space. The book also sheds light on the long and varied past of the building, since, as Brulinski puts it, "everyone knows what the Copycat is, but no one knows the history of it." The book will be published in June and available for purchase on the artists' website.

A 15-minute, single-shot walk-through of the Copycat.

Brulinski and Wein run their art studio, Wild Horses, out of the building and when Wein was looking for a senior art thesis (he attends the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art), The Copycat Project was born. "I started thinking about this kind of project while I was living in San Francisco last summer. I wanted to do a portrait project, but something larger than anything I've done before." 

Upon returning to Baltimore, Wein explored the idea of using the Copycat as his subject. "I visited one resident's space and he had a full-scale, high-end recording studio. When I saw that, I could only imagine what other things were happening inside here and I wanted to find out."

The Copycat, the original home of regional arts heroes like the Wham City collective, is not a typical live/work space. And its immediate surroundings aren't picturesque. "When you move here, it's like 'welcome to the jungle,'" says Brulinski.

Chelsea Harman, 20, Apt. F402. Image courtesy The Copycat Project.

Not all rooms have running water, and near the back of the building you'll find what's known as "the loading dock," an area that amounts to a heavily used, free thrift store for occupants. The scale of urban distress around the Copycat helps keep the building affordable. While the area has improved, enough for it to be seen as an arts-focused district, poverty and abandoned properties still define much of the neighborhood. 

Gentrification might not be the appropriate term, but the Copycat's success is leading to changes nearby. City Arts apartments was recently built as a federally funded, low-income development for artists. To many local artists though, there's no question which space defines Station North's community. "City Arts tries to replicate the Copycat, but you can't. The Copycat is rebellious. It has a history of being semi-illegal. It's not something a city can just create," says Wein.

Baltimore's zoning code, last updated in 1973, does not allow for people to live in industrial-zoned properties. The Copycat started to see artists residing in it in the 1980s after new owners converted one floor into artist studios. As its popularity increased, the owners eventually applied for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinance in 2003. The success of the Copycat has led the city to incorporate an "industrial mixed use" component to its soon-to-be updated zoning code.

David Conroy, 51, Apt. C201. Image courtesy The Copycat Project.

Brulinski and Wein's book captures the authentic and raw nature of the Copycat, showing readers an astonishing variety of residents, most of whom live in personally crafted spaces bearing no resemblance to their neighbors'. 

And that's what makes the Copycat, especially in the eyes of the book's creators, so special. "There is no such thing as a typical resident or typical day inside here," says Wein.

In many ways, The Copycat Project is the perfect embodiment of its subject. Two artist residents, using their creative talents to put together a book about something they love, all on their own. "There's no middle man here. It's DIY at its finest." Brulinski was describing the Copycat, but it's a description that just as well fits their own project.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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