The industrial lines of Roebling Wire Works echo with the buzz of artist energy, the thrumming handiwork of the deejay, and a crush of eager shoppers.As a little boy wearing a Black Flag T-shirt runs ahead of his parents and down an aisle of crafters, creators, and makers, the diverse crowd of customers parts without missing a beat. The Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market (TPRFM) has a kind of inclusiveness that all can feel and appreciate—which might have something to do with the palpable D.I.Y. ethic and buzz of the place.
Was there a Big Bang that started this creative cavalcade? Credit can be given to the TPRFM’s event director Joseph Kuzemka. With the directing success of Trenton Art All Night under his belt, Kuzemka was already a fan of other alternative-style flea markets in Philadelphia and beyond, before he founded the TPRFM.
“It was time to bring something new to the creative landscape of Trenton,” Kuzemka says. “The city is home to an incredible community of artists, creatives, forward thinkers, musicians, and more, which makes hosting our events here such rewarding experiences.”
After a conversation with a friend, and thanks to his extensive marketing and graphic design background, Kuzemka developed the logo and social media for TPRFM the very next day. The first event was staged at Artworks, a downtown Trenton art gallery, and hosted roughly 50 vendors. Though projected to welcome approximately 400 visitors, they were flooded with more than 2,000. Says Kuzemka, “It was at that moment I realized I had found lightning in a bottle.”
The TPRFM is the result of very careful curating. “The punk rock ethos, which has always revolved around creativity, skateboarding, music, and more, is something we take seriously and something we strive to create with all of our events. It’s a natural progression for us to bring these aspects of counterculture into the TPRFM.”
Enter the indie food trucks, the packed slate of outdoor live music acts, and the nearly 500 vendors (at the April 2019 event), made up strictly of independent businesses, artists, and D.I.Y. folks who create with their hands. But they are vetted heavily.
“Part of the mission is to promote small business owners, and provide a space for artists to sell their works to masses of like-minded people,” says Kuzemka. “We’ve never been shy about letting folks know when they’re not a good fit for us and our audience.”
That careful curating pays off: At every event, long lines snake to the TPRFM’s entrance in Trenton as well as at their second location, in the Neshaminy Creek Brewing, in Croydon, Pennsylvania. It’s no secret that the soul of the TPRFM is the makers—an eclectic mix from 20-plus states—like PM Press, a publishing company from California that brings radical ideas to the printed page, or New York City’s Obscura Antiques & Oddities, whose Oddities reality show about the shop aired for five seasons on the Discovery Channel. From the well-known to the little-known, prints and posters, vintage clothing and toys, original art, comics … whatever your dark, irreverent, creative, humorous poison, there’s something here for you.
Chase Brown, the clay-covered hands and creative force behind Wrong World Ceramics, describes his work as ritualistic, countercultural, and sardonic—picture finely made skull jars and flasks that are at once profane, elegant, embossed, and political. A lifelong artist based in Philadelphia, Brown’s Wrong World Ceramics has been his full-time gig since 2012, and he embodies the rabble-rousing punk spirit.
“I strive to find balance between creative satisfaction and making something that I think people will want,” Brown says. “Externally, my inspirations are countercultural. I get a fire lit under me by politics and my stance will be known to you immediately. Internally, I am inspired by process. If my work isn’t sacred to you, I want you to laugh; if you don’t laugh, I want to you to be offended.”
The irrepressible Kimi Tallant, of KWT Designs, says she pulls energy from the TPRFM, its community of artists and vendors, and the overall positive vibe. “The organizers are so invested in creating an amazing experience for the guests and vendors and it really shows.” Tallant’s own positivity is seen in her work, too. Her enamel pins, prints, and flair have a graphic style that is edgy, appealing, and whimsical. Her inspiration: seemingly disparate elements like “travel, tattoos, nature, and small overlooked moments of beauty in the world,” all of which coalesce in what Tallant calls “tiny wearable art.”
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the TPRFM experience as a whole is the balance it seems to strike. Is it family friendly or punk rock? Both, says Kuzemka. “We strive to provide a family friendly, safe, and fun atmosphere that includes art and creativity, live music, and a celebration of all things creative and punk rock.”
Partnering with other Trenton organizations keeps the community channels open and people engaged. “We believe in community and we believe in giving back,” he says. “We’re so lucky to have amazing organizations [like Artworks Trenton, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and Eden Autism Services] that not only require, but deserve, our support.”
Though Kuzemka may be the majestically bearded, recognizable face of the TPRFM, there’s an entire team dressed in black behind him. He recognizes it’s impossible to mount an event of this size and at this level without a tremendous amount of help behind the scenes. He employs several part-time market managers, whose jobs range from managing vendor relations, to managing staff at events, to running social media. However, for their largest events—hosted primarily in Trenton—TPRFM engages a dedicated, hardworking event staff of more than 20 people, many of whom have been with TPRFM for years. “We’re not just coworkers,” Kuzemka says. “We’re a family.”
It’s a fact: Shopping makes punks hungry. Luckily, there’s a food truck-splosion happening at the TPRFM to soothe the savage beasts. Arranged in a delicious semicircle at the Roebling Wire Works entrance, these trucks are dishing out some of the best local food around. What you can count on besides delectable snacks: colorful graphics, smiles at the windows, and mouthwatering walk-around food.
Though the street treats are all wonderfully different, the one thing these folks do have in common is that they are all “run your own road” kinds of people. Translation: Most don’t have professional training, either culinary or business-wise—they are propelled instead by obsessions with food, being their own bosses, and sharing good eats with the world.
“We weren’t ever going to be truly happy working for someone else, and we have the drive, intelligence, and self-discipline to be entrepreneurs, so why not go into business for ourselves?” says Waffle Mamas co-owner Laura Borucki. “We spent years researching, educating ourselves, testing recipes, and saving money to be able to make this dream come true—all while working full-time jobs.”
Kevin Kramer at The Chilly Banana was faced with a similar decision when he graduated college: Try out this crazy, frozen banana whip idea or … work for someone else. “Being my own boss was a huge draw for me,” he says. Aaron DaSilva, of Shore Shake, has a more self-reflective view. “I’ve always felt most at home when I’m on the move and in the service of others. It also just so happens that I can coordinate flavor palettes with aplomb, so opening a food truck proved a natural progression in my becoming a more realized version of myself.” PaperMill Foods was inspired by an obsession with spring rolls and the heritage of its founder, Alex Sherack, whose mom is from Korea and dad is from Australia—to create the popular Spurrito, an unimaginable yet delicious marriage of a spring roll and a burrito. —Rae Padulo (photographs by Dan Komoda; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Spring/Summer 2019)