There was a time when vending machines were chic. Entire restaurants called automats featured complete meals vended course by course from coin operated glass doors. Today, soda and snack machines are common, and weird Japanese machines get a lot of press. But the big moneymaker in vending was cigarettes, especially from machines found in bars.
These once ubiquitous devices enticed nicotine-craving patrons to drop a few coins into the slot, which allowed them to choose one of ten or twenty different brands. Most places in the United States have outlawed the use of cigarette vending machines, as they couldn’t discriminate the legal age of the person using it.
Cigarette boxes and packs are nearly all the same size, and the machines took advantage of this. However, now that cigarette vending machines are illegal, what could these machines be used for? Since they’re sized for cigarettes, and very few other products come in that size, it seems they’re all destined for collectors and scrap piles.
Enter Art-o-mat! Or rather, enter Clark Whittington. Way back in 1997, he had the idea of repurposing a recently banned machine. After a fresh paint job and the creation of a box exactly the same size as a cigarette pack, Clark had created the first Art-o-mat. The original machine dispensed black and white photographs for $1.00.
Though this first incarnation was supposed to be a temporary exhibit, it proved to be so popular that he decided to democratize it, and allow other artists to create art for the machines. It works like this: at 90 locations around the world, you can buy tokens, usually for $5, that allow you to choose one of ten or twenty different types of art. You might purchase earrings, small figurines, photographs, drawings, flip books, sculptures—basically anything that an artist can fit inside a cigarette pack sized box. The creators are known collectively as “Artists in Cellophane.”
And then an interesting thing happens. As you stare at the machine, you have the thought: is this really worth $5.00? To help you make your decision, let me propose this: in the few locales where cigarette machines are still allowed, a pack of Marlboros will set you back $10.00. You could have two, creative, permanent pieces of art for the same price as a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, $5.00 seems like a bargain.
And it is. In the three different art products I’ve sampled from the machines, the value was far more than the $5.00 dropped through the slot. This art is done for art’s sake, and you can be a part of it… IF you can find a machine.
Artomat.org has a machine locator. We found ours in San Antonio. There’s one in Chicago, and there are six at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. If you don’t live near enough to a machine, you can also order cartons of 20 packs from the website. Don’t worry, we won’t judge. We can understand the addiction.