Leah Valdez, an artist out of El Paso, Texas, wanted to find a place where she and artists like her could display their wares, without raising an eyebrow from the more “traditional” flea market or arts-and-crafts fair settings.
Instead of trying to fit into others’ designs, she helped organize her own non-conventional art environment with El Paso’s monthly Punk Rock Flea Market, a darkly unique event for artists, performers , and shoppers of all ages.
“As an artist here in El Paso I found it difficult to find people who appreciated my work, which involved combining the macabre and the whimsical,” Valdez says. “I love Dia de los Muertos and my art definitely reflects that. I’m kind of weird and I needed a venue to display and sell my work that would understand and be cool with that.”
The El Paso Punk Rock Flea Market is billed as “not your grandma’s flea market,” but Valdez says that the supporters of the market come from all walks of life. The diversity of the visitors is as extreme as the artists themselves. There are always a few adventurous grandmas taking advantage of this unique marketplace setting.
“We are the largest art and vintage market in El Paso, which is cool because we have something for everyone,” she says. “Abuelitas (grannies) can go browsing for antiques while their grown kids can appreciate all the locally made beauty products, art, and handcrafted jewelry, and finally, the younger crowd can check out our horror, punk, rockabilly inspired clothing, art, accessories, and everything in between.”
Valdez says that one of her inspirations was the Trenton (New Jersey) Punk Rock Flea Market.
“They had 200 artists selling unique, handmade items and their vibe was just awesome,” she says. “I was always wishing I could hop on a plane and participate, which wasn’t a feasible option, so I decided to organize one here.”
The Trenton market is run by The Rockhopper Creative, owned and operated by Joseph Kuzemka. Kuzemka says, like El Paso’s market, the diversity of the crowd at Trenton’s market is amazing.
“Although our target audience is more of the 18-35 demographic, we definitely appeal to folks from all walks of life, age, etc.,” he says. “It’s not at all uncommon to see older couples strolling through the market right alongside a tattooed, 22-year-old with a mohawk and a leather jacket that’s rockin’ a Nausea back patch.”
Kuzemka says there will always be the tendency for some people to hear the term “punk rock,” cringe a little, and shy away from the event. However, with over 25 years in the New Jersey punk rock scene and a knack for organizing large-scale events, he helped to bridge the gap with a family-friendly market of more than 200 small businesses from five states, nearly a dozen food trunks, the local arts community, and what he called that “DIY ethic” on which the entire punk and hardcore movement is based. He says the market is really a celebration of the arts and creativity.
“We’ve included everything from skate demos and live graffiti muralists to raffles and giveaways at every event,” he says. “For our upcoming event in March, we’ll actually have have live glassblowing going on the entire day.”
He says some of the misconceptions about the market have been amusing to read, particularly on the event’s Facebook feed.
“Many younger adults will RSVP and their parents will generally comment with a snarky reply suggesting they either shouldn’t come into an urban area or that their love of punk, goth, what-have-you, is somehow bumming them out,” Kuzemka says. “Many people don’t get it. They hear the term ‘punk rock’ and it somehow conjures up ideas of mosh pits and stage dives, when in reality we’re just several thousand people coming together to celebrate music, the arts, culture, craftsmanship and, most importantly, community. We welcome everyone, and I’ve spoken to many folks who were skeptical until they attended the actual event. They always come back.”
Kuzemka says his experience with the Trenton market has been so “unbelievably rewarding,” it is hard for him to really nail down what he loves most. One thing that does make him most proud is the market being so heavily community-based.
“Trenton is a little down on its luck and it’s going to require a lot of work to bring it back to its glory days,” he says, “but I like to think that by bringing more than 200 small business owners into the City of Trenton, three times per year, along with attracting several thousand people that attend each event, that we’re doing our part to contribute to the rebirth of our great city.”
The Trenton event happens around three times a year. The El Paso market has recently grown from monthly to twice a month, due to popular demand, in addition to occasional Twilight Market evening events held at various locations throughout the city. Valdez’s ultimate goal is to see the market become a weekly occurrence. Kuzemka, too, hopes to continue to see the Trenton market continue to grow.
“There are amazing things happening here… it’s just a matter of getting the people here to show them,” he says. “My goal is to not only continue this into the future, but to grow it beyond my wildest expectations!”
The Punk Rock Flea market trend is growing in other communities as well. In addition to El Paso and Trenton, Punk Rock markets and market events have popped up in Seattle, Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA, Bryan, TX, Brooklyn, NY, Newark, DE, Tulsa, OK, and Washington, D.C., just to list a few.
Valdez says El Paso has completely embraced the market, and there are anywhere from 500 to 1,500 attendees each month. She also says that the creative and talented people she has met since starting the market is one of the reasons for the draw. In addition, the emphasis is on the original works from local artists.
“(It’s the) vendors, artists, musicians, and all of the people that attend,” she says. “I think one thing that sets us apart is the vibe at our market. We’re all friends. We are all family. It is an artist-run market and it will stay that way. Come hang out with us, we have cool stuff, I promise.”