Behold the Art-o-Mat: Vintage Cigarette Vending Machines Get Repurposed & Dispense Works of Art

It’s a well known fact that any­one who’s quit­ting smok­ing will need to find some­thing to occu­py their hands.

Many experts sug­gest hold­ing a pen­cil or anoth­er vague­ly-cig­a­rette-shaped object.

Oth­ers pre­scribe busy work—cracking nuts and peel­ing oranges.

Hard­core cas­es are advised to keep those paws busy with a hob­by such as paint­ing or wood­work­ing.

But from where we sit, the most spir­i­tu­al­ly reward­ing, sym­bol­ic activ­i­ty for some­one in this ten­der sit­u­a­tion would be cre­at­ing a tiny art­work pro­to­type to sell in an Art-o-Mat®, one of over 100 vin­tage cig­a­rette vend­ing machines specif­i­cal­ly repur­posed to dis­pense art.

Locat­ed pri­mar­i­ly in the US, the machines are the brain­child of artist Clark Whit­ting­ton, who loaded the first one with black & white, block-mount­ed pho­tos for a 1997 solo show in a Win­ston-Salem cafe.

These days, there are a hun­dred or so Art-o-Mats, stocked with the work of artists both pro­fes­sion­al and ama­teur, who have suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gat­ed the sub­mis­sion process.

A vari­ety of medi­ums is represented—painting, sculp­ture, fine art prints, jew­el­ry, assem­blages, cut paper, and tiny bound books.

Wor­thing­ton encour­ages would-be par­tic­i­pants to avoid the ease of mass pro­duc­tion in favor of unique items that bear evi­dence of the human hand:

The vend­ing process is only the begin­ning of your Art-o-Mat® art. Once pur­chased and two steps away from the machine, your work is sole­ly a reflec­tion of you and your art. Many pieces have been car­ried around the globe. So, think of approach­es that do not con­vey “a Sun­day after­noon at the copy shop” and con­sid­er ways that your art will be appre­ci­at­ed for years to come.

The guide­lines are under­stand­ably strict with regard to dimen­sions. Wouldn’t want to kill the blind box thrill by jam­ming a vin­tage vend­ing machine’s inner work­ings.

Edi­bles, mag­nets, bal­loons, glit­ter, con­fet­ti, and any­thing processed along­side peanuts are ver­boten mate­ri­als.

A cer­tain pop­u­lar decoupage medi­um is anoth­er no-no, as it adheres to the man­dat­ed pro­tec­tive wrap.

And just as cig­a­rettes car­ry stern­ly word­ed warn­ings from the Sur­geon Gen­er­al, artists are advised to include a label if their sub­mis­sion could be con­sid­ered unsuit­able for under­age col­lec­tors.

If you need a hand to walk you through the process, have a look at crafter Shan­non Greene’s video, above.

Greene became enthralled with the Art-o-Mat expe­ri­ence on a heav­i­ly doc­u­ment­ed trip to Las Vegas, when she put $5 in the Cos­mopoli­tan Hotel’s machine, and received a box of string and paint­ed can­vas scrap book­marks cre­at­ed by Kelsey Huck­a­by.

(Wit­ness artist Huck­a­by treat­ing her­self to one of her own cre­ations from an Austin, Texas Art-o-Mat on her birth­day, below, to see a machine in action. Par­tic­u­lar­ly rec­om­mend­ed for those who came of age after these once-stan­dard fix­tures were banned from the lob­bies of bars and din­ers.)

Oth­er repur­posed machines in the Art-o-Mat sta­ble include the zip­py red num­ber in Ocala, Florida’s Apple­ton Muse­um of Art, a cool blue cus­tomer resid­ing in Stan­ford University’s Lan­tana House, and a 6‑knob mod­el that peri­od­i­cal­ly pops up in var­i­ous arts-friend­ly New York City venues.

As the jol­ly and self-dep­re­cat­ing crafter Greene observes, at $5 a “yank,” no one is get­ting rich off this project, though the artists get 50% of the pro­ceeds.

It’s also worth not­ing that these orig­i­nal art­works cost less than a pack of cig­a­rettes in all but six states.

We agree with Greene that the expe­ri­ence more than jus­ti­fies the price. What­ev­er art one winds up with is but added val­ue.

Greene does not regret the con­sid­er­able labor that went into the 100 tiny jour­nals cov­ered in retired bill­board vinyl she was required to crank out after her pro­to­types were green­lit.

To deter­mine whether or not you’re pre­pared to do the time, have a peek at Katharine Miele’s labor-inten­sive process, below. Even though the artist’s con­tact infor­ma­tion is includ­ed along with every Art-o-Mat sur­prise, there’s no guar­an­tee that she’ll hear back from any­one who wound up with one of the geo­met­ric chair linocuts she spent a week mak­ing.

Oth­er Art-o-Mat artists, like Susan Rossiter, have fig­ured out how to play by the rules while also real­iz­ing a bit of return beyond the Pip­pi Long­stock­ing-like sat­is­fac­tion of cre­at­ing a nifty expe­ri­ence for ran­dom strangers. The machines are stocked with orig­i­nals of her tiny mul­ti-media chick­en por­traits, and she sells prints on her web­site.

Or per­haps, you, like monony­mous physi­cist Colleen, find a med­i­ta­tive plea­sure in the act of cre­ation. To date, she’s paint­ed 1150 cig­a­rette-pack-sized blocks for inclu­sion in the machines.

Still game? Get start­ed with an Art-o-Mat pro­to­type kit for $19.99 here.

(As Greene joy­ful­ly points out, it comes with such good­ies as a lit­tle jour­nal, a pen­cil, and an offi­cial Art-o-Mat eras­er.)

Take inspi­ra­tion — or dream about what $5 might get you — in the collector’s show and tell, above.

Feel­ing flush and far from the near­est Art-o-Mat loca­tion?  Sup­port the project by drop­ping a Ben­jamin on an Art-o-Car­ton con­tain­ing 10 tiny art­works, cus­tom select­ed in response to a short, per­son­al­i­ty-based ques­tion­naire.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Vend­ing Machine Now Dis­trib­utes Free Short Sto­ries at Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Café Zoetrope

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Nov­els Sold in Pol­ish Vend­ing Machines

Sup­port “Green Reads,” a Pro­gram That Finances Libraries by Dis­trib­ut­ing Used Books in Eco-Friend­ly Vend­ing Machines

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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