Punk Rock Flea Market Delights Community with Return to Nii Modo
Updated: Jul 2
Attendees line up to enter the market. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)
From classic punk rock paraphernalia to local art vendors selling their own unique custom prints, the Seattle Punk Rock Flea Market (PRFM) came back with a bang to the delight of many local shoppers.
This year the market partnered with Seattle Restored to return to the Nii Modo location at 1404 Third Ave. in the heart of downtown. Seattle Restored is a program dedicated to supporting local artists and entrepreneurs by repurposing inactive spaces, like empty storefronts, to host public events that engage the community. The program is backed by the City of Seattle general funds and arranged through the efforts of organizations like Shunpike, Seattle Good Business Network, and the Seattle Office of Economic Development.
Established in 2005, the Punk Rock Flea Market first got its start in a Belltown basement bar as a fundraiser for the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). Over a decade later, the market continues to support LIHI by donating a portion of its proceeds to the organization. LIHI is a non-profit focused on aiding and advocating for low-income and unhoused individuals in Washington State. As an affordable housing developer, LIHI manages thousands of housing units and supportive service programs for those in need throughout the Puget Sound.
Hosted in a former Bartell Drugs, the 2023 PRFM transformed the drab beige walls of capitalism into an underground hot spot full of punk rock fashion, memorabilia and other worldy collectibles. Inside the Nii Modo location, the space is decked out with funky, fresh graphic art featuring graffiti lettering and mystical creatures, like a dragon, or a smiling green lizard greeting customers with “hi, mom!” painted on a pillar. The only remaining semblance of the old space is the “PHARMACY” sign. A somewhat humorous sight amid the market’s backdrop of immense color. No drugs, just art here.
The walls are covered in designs from local artists. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)
According to the organizers, PRFM is like “a neighborhood swap meet in Andy Warhol’s garage.” Josh Okrent is the one who founded this eclectic market back in the early 2000’s. Since 2015, he has partnered with CM Ruiz, who is the director of the traveling art gallery Nii Modo, on several community art projects around the Seattle area, including PRFM. Even amid pandemic setbacks, this duo has kept the tradition of the market going strong.
Onlookers browse a myriad of mysterious items. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)
“Everything about the Punk Rock Flea Market is important…we’re smashing the state here,” Okrent said. “This is a way for people to use their creativity and to use their entrepreneurial spirit and their small business sense to make something happen. There’s no gatekeepers.”
For many, PRFM is a chance to express their creative voice, pursue a hobby, or kick-start their new business from the ground up. Although Okrent has been at this for a long time now, he’s still always delighted to hear from those who began their entrepreneurial journey at PRFM.
“We’ve been doing this for 16 years. There are people who have started successful businesses in printing, in cafes,” Okrent said. “Full Tilt Ice Cream, one of the first shows they ever did was the Punk Rock Flea Market. The Bang Bang cafe in South Seattle, one of the first shows they ever did was catering the Punk Rock Flea Market. We really try to give people that base level of support to become self-sustaining, and self-sustaining business people.”
Josh Okrent talking to the Ground Zero Radio News team. (Photo/Kai Lewis).
The market is temporarily home to just one of several places undergoing a reactivation in downtown. In cases like PRFM, these reactivations give artists, who’ve been struggling since the pandemic, a chance to take up space and show their work in an affordable, safe environment.
Ruiz hopes the reactivation of the Nii Modo location for PRFM will help several artists gain more visibility from the city and assist them in their process of financial recovery.
“I think a lot of it’s financial help, like post-lockdown and how a lot of artists are having to move further and further out of Seattle city limits,” said Ruiz. “Like having a centralized place for some commerce to start kicking back in. And also, the community of meeting other artists and people that like the same things you do…I think it’s all just super positive and really, really good to have that right now.”
CM Ruiz at a vendor stall during Sunday’s market run. (Photo/Gurjot Kang).
With the price to enter only a dollar and all ages welcome, hundreds from the surrounding area poured into the market to taste the scene and get their hands on a treasure trove of deals. The weekend rain didn’t pose an obstacle to the many small independent vendors, both new and returning. As I browsed art prints of cats dressed in business suits, classic vinyls, and more, I stopped by several stalls to chat with some of the entrepreneurs who came out this weekend to participate in the market.
One of the first artists I met was Hannah Gietl of “LucyStargiet Sewing & Screenprints.” Hannah is a first-time PRFM vendor excited to talk about her craft, which includes sewing creative patchwork bags made of vintage materials and scraps of fabrics she can’t bear to part with. Her work consists of fanny packs, hand-crafted wallets, and one-of-a-kind bags that give off ‘cute grandma chic’ vibes. Hannah’s stall also had stickers and cards she screen-printed herself for sale, including one of an adorable squirrel riding a bike. Perfect for your average squirrel lover. As for me, I’m terrified of those little creatures.
Hannah Gietl showing her customized bags. (Photo/Gurjot Kang).
Afterwards, I met with another first-time vendor Yu-Hsin Wan. Wan, who’s from Taiwan, has been collecting interesting and distinct art prints from around the world on her travels from Switzerland to Germany. Alongside these fantastic finds, Wan displayed hand-made cards for sale, which she stamped with phrases, like “had so much fun today and there’ll be more,” accompanied by adorable little character drawings.
For Wan, PRFM is a great opportunity to make friends and connect with other members of the community. According to her, the market makes it “very comfortable to enter the vendor business as a newbie.”
First-time vendor Yu-Hsin Wan at her stall. (Photo/Gurjot Kang).
A couple of stalls down, I got to chat with Isabela Garcia, the DJ Curator for PRFM. Garcia, who has been vending for five years, was excited to share her love for the flea market. As DJ Wax Witch, Garcia received the pleasure of DJing at some of the past markets as well. Most recently, Garcia started selling her own collection of records.
Isabela Garcia standing infront of her record collection. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)
“I like to sell a lot of different kind of rock and roll. I also have a nice niche in electronic dance music,” Garcia said. “But I like all different kinds of stuff—jazz, soul—it kind of depends what I find.”
For Garcia, it’s the hunt for the latest, most interesting records and sharing these finds with others that brings her joy.
After meeting with Garcia, I stopped by the vendor stall of artist Ezra Dickinson to hear more about his “bowls of words”—a collection of ceramic wares with statements or quotes he views as universal truths.
“I am very interested in the potential permanence that ceramic wares have to communicate with someone or something far off into the future,” Dickinson said. “We learn a lot about past civilizations through stone and ceramics that have writing on them that we dig up, and I’m interested in kind of putting that in motion again.”
Ezra Dickinson with his “bowls of words” display. (Photo/Gurjot Kang).
This is Dickinson’s second time participating in PRFM. His favorite part of working with the market is the opportunity to foster meaningful connection and conversation with everyone who steps through the door.
“I love witnessing all the style. I feel like there’s a myriad of expression that goes on here. There’s a lot of people that feel very safe in this environment,” said Dickinson. “I think that allows everyone to kind of show who they are and what their interested in. And I love seeing that expressed.”
Another artist I chatted with later on was Mason Heckett. For his art, Heckett tries to be sustainable by using as much recycled materials as possible, even going as far as making his own pigments/dyes for his paints and reusing old house paint.
Heckett, who was drawing away at his stall, before I annoyingly approached him was nevertheless glad to share his art story and how he began “really hippying it up” and “just being granola all day long.” His words, not mine.
Mason Heckett working on an art piece amid his array of prints. (Photo/Gurjot Kang).
Heckett often finds that the art he creates is a reflection of his life and what’s going on around him, both socially and politically. He also enjoys creating more sci-fi works of art. PRFM has also influenced him to be more edgy and raw in his style.
“I was a chef for 15 years and I finally got the chef de cuisine position at this little small restaurant. It was amazing and then COVID happened,” said Heckett. “And then I didn’t have anything to do, and I had a basement that was underutilized, so I just started painting again.”
Heckett was later introduced by a peer to PRFM organizer Josh Okrent. From there on, he learned more about how to get involved with the market and other community gatherings for emerging artists, like SPASM, the monthly South Park Swap Meet.
“It’s totally changed my life. It’s allowed me to make money by making art,” Heckett said. “It’s something that I never thought I would be doing but it’s been a really like just total 180 from my normal trajectory.”
Across from Heckett was another amazing young artist, Ayanna Ali. Ali was the last vendor, with impeccable fashion sense I might add, that I talked to at the market. For almost five years, Ali has been working on her business, Alter Ego Expressions, since she was just 15 years old.
“A lot of my work is based in horror. I’ve been a fan of horror since I was like a kid basically,” said Ali. “It was also inspired by one of my favorite manga artists Junji Ito.”
For Ali, her experience at the market has been a moment of pride and encouragement.
“Seeing people’s excitement and reactions to the art…sometimes I underestimate my skills as an artist,” said Ali. “It’s kind of like reassuring to see people saying that even the pieces that I don’t like, some of the older stuff, saying some positive reactions to it.”
Ayanna Ali holding her favorite print, “Hell’s Garden.” (Photo/Gurjot Kang).
For these vendors and the many others who gathered together that weekend, PRFM is home to all. Whether it’s upcycled clothes, discounted books, skateboards or cute knick-knacks—the market has a little something for everyone. It’s a daydreamer’s browsing paradise, and just one of the many community hubs bringing life to Seattle.
“I think we’re saving Seattle down here. So much of what people think of as Seattle, which is an open-minded, free-spirited creative place—we spent a good couple of decades losing that and selling Seattle to whoever could pay the most,” said Okrent. “All these young people coming up in the city like I did aren’t finding opportunities here, or weren’t finding opportunities here. So I hope we’re bringing some of that back…And there’s more room for people buying punk rock t-shirts and painting graffiti on the walls.”
Missed your chance to attend the Punk Rock Flea Market earlier this month? Fret not! The market will make another appearance in Tacoma, at ALMA 1322 Fawcett, on the weekend of May 27-28. With more than 100 vendors, live DJs, delicious bites, and fun drinks, this event ensures a memorable time with friends and family.