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'High-class squatter' finds home for art in vacant Ybor buildings

YBOR CITY — Blake Emory wakes up at 7 a.m. on an ugly floral couch in an old storage building. He's not supposed to live here. But he stayed up working late, and fell asleep. ¶ Blake doesn't have a home, at least not officially. "I'm just a high-class squatter," the 25-year-old calls himself. ¶ A "squatter" with big plans. ¶ Blake is building a worldwide empire of art venues, he says. And he's using Ybor City as an incubator. He means it. He really does. But in development-driven Ybor, Blake can't afford to buy or even rent space. ¶ So he found an opening: The bad real estate market has left plenty of big, vacant buildings in Ybor. Blake persuades owners to let him use their space. But he knows the deal won't last forever. ¶ "The second that it sells is the second I pack my stuff and roll," Blake says. ¶ But on one day this month, he wasn't thinking that far ahead. He has an ambitious show planned for April, and he's got a lot of work to do.

8:10 a.m.

Blake has wild, red hair and a matching goatee. His jeans are paint-splattered and ripped. He ties his shoes in the dark 9,600-square-foot building on 17th Street, his third haunt in a year.

Only a couple of lights work. Two toilets await plumbing, and a third, which Blake hooked up, is shielded only by crooked closet doors. He could've found cushier digs with his family in Plant City, but if he's going to start a revolution in Ybor City, he needs to stay here and work full time on his art.

"Ybor to me, as an artist, is like Scarface and the drug industry in Miami when he showed up," he says, with his surfer-dude drawl. "It's all there for the taking."

He used to live in the old Oliva Cigar Factory. But last year, owners decided to sell to a hotel developer, forcing Blake into another tattered building, on 22nd Street. He rewired the electricity, fixed the plumbing and rigged the meters. When the utility companies caught on, he was out of power.

But he'd already lined up his next building months before. He saw a man in the parking lot and asked who owned it. Alfonso Architects, Carlton Brown told him. Brown happened to be the chief financial officer.

"I checked a little bit on Blake and found him to be a credible young man," he said. So he gave Blake a shot.

Brown sees the building as a retail/residential complex someday, but the market's too bad now. So like others before him, Brown made a deal with Blake: He could use the place for art shows.

Now, less than a month later, traces of Blake lay about — the frame of a stage made of abandoned wood planks, a graffiti mural painted by tattoo artists and a massive slab of marble donated from an old tombstone company.

On one side, Blake is carving the face of Mother Nature. On the other, the old, wise Father Time.

8:30 a.m.

"Imagine Michelangelo doing this," Adam Courtney says, struggling to put the slab of marble on a dolly.

"He probably had people do it for him," Blake says, wheeling the sculpture into the sunlight.

They don't have fancy tools, just chisels and hammers, like their hero from the 16th century. After two months, the statues are starting to resemble old men with beards, a nod to Michelangelo's 1515 statue of Moses.

Neither artist can afford a trip to Rome to see the Moses in person, but Adam has examined its every detail in an art textbook picture.

Blake hits his thumb with the hammer. "Agh!"

Adam and Blake have been best friends since childhood. They used to create armies of toy soldiers from garbage bag twist-ties. Now, Adam drives straight from his night job washing trucks in Plant City to sculpt in Ybor with Blake.

Blake's older brother James completes the trio. The Emory brothers have lived off of mural and sculpture commissions for the past decade. They grew up with a musician dad, a painter mom and two actor sisters.

"There's two definitions of artists," 28-year-old James says. One is "I like art and it's a hobby," he said. Two is you "live" it. "To me, that's an artist."

Blake yelps again, and shakes his fingers.

"Same thumb every time."

11:20 a.m.

Blake is walking along the Sixth Avenue train tracks, his boxer puppy Cassius at his side.

He can't drive his faded '67 Plymouth Fury because he accumulated so many violations he lost his license. Driving without one and bad checks have landed him in jail before. He did two months once. Prisoners traded cookies and Snickers bars for his sketches.

It takes about 10 minutes to reach his friend Steve Francois' house in East Ybor. This is where Blake showers. Today, Steve records Blake reciting a monologue for his play The Gods Folly in Creation.

Blake collects himself at the microphone and begins.

"I have awoken!" he roars, as if he were God. "Awoken to the rising sun."

In his days at the Oliva building, Blake paired art shows with mythological plays. One featured a 30-foot dragon; another, a giant Aztec god.

"What that kid did there with nothing — with cardboard boxes and nothing — was amazing to me," Angel "Trey" Oliva said. "He tries to do what he says, and says what he does. That's very difficult to do in this world, especially if you're a dreamer like that guy."

For his April show, Blake envisions actors flying, doing acrobatics and leaping from trapdoors.

He and James are also filming a Kung Fu action flick with "fighting ninja chicks" and a dwarf assassin. He plans to blow up a car.

2 p.m.

Blake finishes off the Cuco Special at La Tropicana Cafe. "A bowl of soup and some bread," he says. "That just fills you up, man."

He usually opts for the $3.50 black and Spanish bean soup, but today, he splurged on the additional half Cuban sandwich.

He has money left from a mural project and hands the owner a $100 bill. Ray Cuttle keeps a tab for Blake, so he can eat on weeks his art
doesn't sell.

"A starving artist, but with an honest reputation," Cuttle calls him. "That's the old Ybor way — bartering, his word."

2:20 p.m.

Blake meets his brother back at the building. James has spent the day looking into plywood prices for the stage. But what about the plumbing? If Blake expects 300 people to show up every Friday for his show, he'll need working toilets.

James gives him a $100 bill. "Spend the whole thing on the bathrooms," he says.

Blake strokes the unfinished face of his sculpture.

"If it were up to me," he says, gazing at Mother Nature, "I would do this all day."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

If you go

Blake Emory's show, "Way of the Brush," will include music, art, poetry and theater. Tickets are $10. Drinks and hors d'oeuvres are included. Doors open Fridays in April at 9 p.m. in the old building he calls the Ybor Cigar Theater, 1704 N 17th St., just off Seventh Avenue. For more information, or to become a sponsor, contact Blake at or (813) 770-2163.

'High-class squatter' finds home for art in vacant Ybor buildings 03/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 1:16pm]
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