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Second to politics, the most notable thing about DC to non-residents is the cherry blossoms. Thousands flock to the DMV each spring to see nature’s wonder bloom around the city. Then, as quick as they came, they’re gone — but if you know where to look, they live on, in a series of murals all around the city, from Dupont to Northeast.
If you’ve seen one of the murals, you’ve seen the work of Chris Pyrate, who began experimenting with the motifs while living in Miami, after a stint in New York. For the DC native, the iconic blossoms were deeply connected to a difficult time. “I lost a few people and went through [some] artist’s block,” Pyrate tells InsideHook. “It just symbolized how I felt, and that was the first time I drew off emotion.”
Pyrate’s passion for DC is bigger than just cherry blossoms, as evidenced by his latest project: Flea DC, a seasonal flea market that pops up at Metrobar tomorrow, August 27, featuring local vendors like streetwear brands The Celebration Club and Prey Four.
The origins of Flea DC fittingly chart a story of death and rebirth — one befitting of the blossoms Pyrate favors. The Emerson Collective commissioned the artist to paint a mural on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southwest, in the shadow of DC’s Entertainment & Sports Arena (aka the home of the Washington Mystics). The plan was for Pyrate to oversee production on the mural; he’d “create the idea” for it and then coordinate and oversee approximately 200 volunteers who would actually paint it. Due to Covid, having 200 people in one place wasn’t practical, so the project entered a cycle of delays. During repeated site visits, Pyrate noticed an empty parking lot — and decided he wanted to do something with it. He eventually settled on a flea market concept because he felt the DC area didn’t have an equivalent to the well-established markets he saw in Maryland and Virginia.
“I just noticed that they were all kind of competing with one another, but also buying from each and selling [it] again,” he says. “I was just like, ‘This is too cyclical.’ I’d go to this vintage thing in Virginia and see a couple guys that I know exist in the DC ecosystem but couldn’t get into DC [to do it]. So I was like, ‘I can do it in DC. I know enough people. I can ask somebody for a [parking] lot.’ It was really [about] trying to help out friends.”
The name, Flea DC, was simple, but in thinking about how he’d brand it, Pyrate soon found he could ascribe a deeper meaning to the project. “I start thinking of imagery, and I’m like, ‘Oh. Like flea also sounds like flee from DC.’ So I flipped [the name] into flee but then scribbled over the last e into a,” he says. “The reason [why people weren’t doing markets] in DC is because of gentrification and the cost of executing — the red tape, all these things. The energy of gentrification causes creatives to think they need to flee the city.”
Pyrate understands that some good can come out of gentrification. “It brings an economic boost,” he says. “So is there a way we can put these [creatives and brands] in locations to benefit? They need new people — new eyes who can see this, gravitate toward it, and inject new life. So there’s a better way to look at things. But you have to be able to position yourself to benefit from it.” Turns out, there was a benefit: The first Flea DC took place in late November and was a huge success. Pyrate says that even with the winter weather, all the vendors made “great money.” A follow-up in mid-April attracted another crowd. Tomorrow’s edition, presented in partnership with DC creative Greg Harrison of The Museum, should repeat that success.
Pyrate believes Flea is more than just a way for brands to share their wares. Flea is just another page in the storybook he’s writing about the city. “I think people who come from [DC] aren’t vocal enough,” he says. “How many times does Jay-Z reference New York? I am actively trying to change that. I have to get the microphone so I can say I’m from DC. Or maybe I can set up the field so that somebody else can do it.”
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