It wasn’t hard to spot where the Punk Rock Flea Market (PRFM) was happening as I neared the intersection of 3rd and Pine in downtown Seattle. A small crowd of people sporting leather jackets, spikes, and piercings were out front of Nii Modo Gallery. I felt like I was heading to a punk show. Once inside, the vibe wasn’t far off.
Vendors and attendees filled the former Bartell’s location while alternative music staples blasted from the PA. Classic jams from the Ramones to the Replacements, Sonic Youth to Sleater-Kinney, soundtracked the shopping spree. A palpable kinetic energy permeated the space as the hordes of holiday hopefuls bounced from booth to booth. This was the perfect place to pick up a gift for the punks you know and love.
That’s not to say this event caters exclusively to an alternative community. You don’t need punk pedigree to attend or to find items that appeal to a wider audience. The term “punk” is used here to convey an independent, DIY spirit, and not necessarily a look or genre of music. While there was an abundance of goth goodies and punk paraphernalia, there was no shortage of vintage clothing, retro media, classic collectibles, and kitschy tchotchkes for sale. A little something for everyone.
Loads of local artists were on-site, selling poster prints, stickers, cards, calendars, clothing, jewelry, and more. Ranging from adorably twee to startlingly subversive, attendees could shop for both their snotty little sibling and their sweet old granny. Despite the diversity of goods on display, there was a kindredness to it all being connected by creative expression.
Started by Josh Okrent in 2005, the Punk Rock Flea Market began as a fundraiser for the Low Income Housing Initiative. They continue to contribute to the cause after every market. The low entry fee of $1 helps ensure the event is accessible and charitable. Seattle artist CM Ruiz — known for his prolific work designing flyers, posters, and album art for the underground music scene — founded Nii Modo Gallery in 2015. The gallery has hosted several all-ages shows, dance parties, art exhibits, and more. Nii Modo and the PRFM have each maintained a transient existence while supporting the creative endeavors of local artists. It’s a kismet match dedicated to upholding independent art and DIY culture.
Housed in a former Bartell’s location, the gallery has been the primary location for Seattle editions of the PRFM in recent years. Remnants of the building’s previous inhabitants are still evident. The back of the room has a long counter with the word “pharmacy” above in large white letters. The counter now operates as a concession stand serving food and drinks during shows and events. The walls and posts throughout the space are covered in vibrant graffiti, including the old cooler doors. One of the doors is painted with the image of Jasper from The Simpsons, recalling the episode where he attempted to cryogenically freeze himself in the Kwik-E-Mart freezer. Nii Modo has operated in similar unoccupied commercial spaces over the years; the Big Wheel Auto Parts shop on Stone Way, Promenade Red Apple Market on 23rd avenue, and the Seven Seas building.
“They’re always in kind of unoccupied spaces. I remember it used to be in the old Value Village in Capitol Hill,” says Khyre, one of the vendors representing U District’s Al’s Music and Games/HiFi LoFi.
“There’s usually the same vendors, and I recognize the same people every time,” his vending partner Lex tells me. “There’s really good foot traffic if you’re a small-time artist. You can see it’s been packed all day in here. I think it’s really, really good.”
“Very community-oriented,” adds Khyre.
It’s a community that continues to grow as new vendors set up alongside veterans with each installment. Many of the regular vendors have been involved for years. I spoke with Jason Emmett of Evil Thread Printing out of Tacoma. Their specialty is standard-issue white ink on black cloth patches featuring punk and metal bands, as well as a plethora of cult media references. He tells me that he’s been vending at the PRFM for close to nine years.
“We always found that doing the Punk Rock Flea Market — whether it’s in Seattle or Tacoma, wherever it’s at — it’s always a great event for us. It’s always packed. People are always coming out, it’s always a good time,” explains Emmett.
If you’re an independent artist looking for a place to be seen and sell some of your work, or you’re looking for something unique and creative; the Punk Rock Flea Market is your ideal destination. Follow @punkrockfleamarketseattle and @niimodo on Instagram to stay updated on upcoming installments of the PRFM and other events.