Kaitlin Fritz is obsessed with Cutie Fest.

She wakes up at 4:45 am every day to prepare for her DIY art market brainchild. Pressing buttons three at a time, answering dozens of DMs and emails, assembling volunteer kits with scissors, tape, zip ties, and bright green shirts that say “Cutie Facilitator.” It’s a lot of work for one person with a day job and a kid, but she likes it that way.

“If I ever wear out, I’ll stop,” she said.

This weekend is Cutie Fest’s fourth rain-or-shine go-around and it’s expected to bring an informal collective of 150 vendors to Cal Anderson this Sunday, April 16. Word has gotten out and 125 additional artists have signed up since the last time. The best part of the deal for young vendors is they don’t have to pay to participate.

Fritz’s simple desire is for young artists to make money from selling their art at an event that feels communal, something she learned is harder to come by than you may expect.

Fritz began selling her cartoonish and day-glo neon paintings of self-conscious ghosts, Furbies, Garfield, scintillating diamonds and disco balls, flower-power daisies during COVID-19.

My favorite are her portraits of leather harnessed, kinky mutts with tennis balls stuffed in their mouths and daddy chihuahuas in Tom of Finland regalia, without the bulging… muscles. It’s PG stuff.

“I have a 6-year-old  daughter and we have this stuff hanging on our walls, it’s not so crazy,” Fritz said. “There’s nothing offensive—like if I had a dildo in that dog’s butt or something. That would be like, ‘Woah! Don’t go to Rosemary’s mom’s house.”’

Kaitlin Fritz's daughter Rosemary manning Fritz's booth at Cutie Fest. KAITLIN FRITZ

Fritz wasn’t super impressed with the local market scene. Things have changed a lot since she came here from New Jersey 18 years ago.

“I did Punk Rock Flea Market and, on record, I think they’re not very punk rock,” she said. “I remember when it used to be in a basement in [Belltown], and I thought it was the coolest thing, I was so inspired by that a long time ago when I was actually young [she’s 37]… It’s expensive and it’s honestly dorky.”

Don’t mistake Fritz for a nostalgia hound. In her mind, Seattle’s halcyon days amount to jaded myth. 

“[People] always want to talk about how it was when we were younger,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, remember this place? Remember that place? Remember that venue?’ But no one wants to do anything about it.”

She points to XO Seattle taking over the old Banana Republic store at the historic Coliseum Theatre starting this summer (“They’re going to do awesome things”).

Fritz argues cool young people and fresh ideas never left Seattle. The infrastructure to support them crumbled under the weight of Seattle’s own capitalistic bullshit.

She lays out the problem like this: It rains a lot here, so indoor spaces are crucial for art markets and informal cultural gatherings of all kinds, but space is limited. Existing art and vintage markets and venues are pricey and–thus–inaccessible. Your average young person can’t fork over $200 to $300 in booth fees without taking a real risk.

So Fritz decided, fuck all that, and laid down a blanket in Cal Anderson Park last spring to sell art. It wasn’t super successful the first time—a couple people checked out the Kinsey canines—but it was fun and free. Not a cent lost.

What if there were more blankets? Tables even? What if it was called Cutie Fest

Six vendors became 12, which became 25 last September—with flyers, friends, Instagram posts, and word-of-mouth pushing Cutie Fest’s growth.

Cutie Fest in September 2020, featuring DJ Big Ugly and DJ Bobby Ghanoush. KAITLIN FRITZ

Nicolla Etzion, 28, met Fritz at a market in South Seattle; she joined the very first Cutie Fest because of Fritz’s stalwart belief in art-for-art’s-sake.

“I’ve honestly stopped participating in a lot of other markets, both as a customer and a vendor,” Etzion said. “Everything is so fast-paced and trends and everything. It’s a little soulless. I know vintage sellers at Fremont Market that have a whole business with their family and who have been doing it for 30 years—then [there are] these people who come in and sell Y2K from the [Goodwill Outlet] bins and it is way, way expensive.”

The same ghoulish forces that rocketed Depop listings to stupid, stratospheric heights are lurking in your local market.

“You have to go through all these markets of DKNY Macy’s Intimates Collection tank tops for like $40 when you could buy them for $12 15 years ago,” Etzion laughed. “It’s just not fun.”

At one market, a vendor ripped off Etzion’s designs and sold them for three times the price at the next one. 

“It was very dejecting,” she said. “It’s meant to be very DIY cool grungy Seattle, but it ends up ingenuine.”

It’s not just grifty sellers–-Etzion says many marketgoers who only care about deals on vintage clothes are rude as hell to artists. Cutie Fest is refreshing because it’s not about money. It’s about lower-priced, handmade art made by people who want to be your friends, instead of compete with you.

“There’s legit art being made, with real technical skills,” she said. “It’s more of an actual art market … Other markets charge more for a day than I’m lucky to make.”

Twenty-four-year-old multimedia artist Swaleha Masude is vending at Cutie Fest for the first time this Sunday. Masude says sellers at other fairs will directly dropship from AliExpress, or behave like vultures, but everyone, and everything, at Cutie Fest feels unique.

“It’s all stuff you can tell has actually been made by them,” she said. “I’m so happy to be part of this—I’m so truly happy to be part of this.”

With the low barrier to entry, not everyone has something to sell. You’ll find tarot readings, saxophone players, and Fritz’s daughter, the self-appointed “princess of Cutie Fest,” blowing giant bubbles. 

The artists trend younger, says Fritz, and that’s important.

“The [opportunities for the] underage community in Seattle are not great,” she said. “Anything that’s for high school kids, and especially queer younger kids, it’s out of touch. You don’t have any younger kids actually helping out with what’s going on in the programs. It’s cringey! Growing up in [Point Pleasant] New Jersey, it was awesome there.” 

Fritz talked warmly of weekends dominated by all-ages shows at rented-out VFW Halls, “run by other kids, which is the way it should be. That’s not the case anymore.”

Her passion for this didn’t start with motherhood (her Instagram handle is @yrlocalsinglemom). Fritz was a lonely queer teen.

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A post shared by Kaitlin Fritz (@kmfduh)

“Not to be cheesy, but growing up, I just like, didn’t have friends,” she said, wry smile falling to a frown. “There are dorks at the table that have the dorks, and then there’s the kid in the bathroom having lunch. I was hiding, like please let this time be over. It was a very different time and it was a very hard time.”

Those kids have a place at Cutie Fest, and the space to do what they want of their own volition.

Fritz perks up at the thought of message boards and the old internet (“That’s how I met all my friends”), which she thinks is a better soil to grow an online community when compared to centralized social media platforms like Instagram.

She even created an old-school message board for the Cutie Fest vendors. Some members have started calling themselves “cuties” and are using the platform to hitch rides from other cities and share vending materials ahead of Sunday. It’s warm and useful. 

Masude says support was there from the first message.

“I feel like when you reach out about wanting to be in markets, you get a Google form link and no other reply, like people don’t even say hi,” Masude said. “So it was a very refreshing change in terms of, like, ‘Oh, I’m talking to a human being like—how nice!’” 

Like the blanket that inspired the fest, Cutie Fest led to the nascent non-profit: The Cutie Foundation.

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A post shared by Cutie Foundation (@cutiefoundation)

Fritz is currently in the dregs of 501(c)(3) incorporation, but the plan is to rent one of those coveted indoor spaces to supply teen artists with materials and offer weekly classes on the opaque “boring” skills artists must know to survive, like the wizardry of online sales knowing how to price your art, and packaging. She joked that you can sell dirt if the bag is pretty enough. 

Fritz wants to work with children who already have the passion, and the talent, but lack the savvy to survive in this capitalist hellhole. 

“[Without it] you’re going to have to work in jobs that you may not want to work while that’s your side hustle, and that’s your hobby, it doesn’t have to be,” she said. “You’re going to be a 35-year-old who doesn’t do their art anymore because they’re tired.”

Cutie Fest is Sun April 16 at Cal Anderson Park, 1635 11th Ave, 10 am-5 pm, free, all ages.