All Hail the Art-o-mat!

Photo by Anthony Pignataro

Just beyond the curtain-framed entrance to the LivingRoom Salon in Costa Mesa and immediately to the left is what appears to be an old cigarette machine. At first glance, it seems to be just a kitschy relic shoved off to the side of this combination hair salon and art gallery (many municipalities banned cigarette machines a few decades ago). But take a few steps closer, and it becomes clear this particular machine, though once designed to dispense cancer sticks, now sells very small but very inexpensive works of art.

It’s called an Art-o-mat, and there are more than a hundred of these flashy, refurbished cigarette machines scattered across the country. This particular device—the only one in Orange County—was installed about 15 years ago. It’s also one of the earliest ever built—the fourth Art-o-mat ever put into circulation, in fact. And it fit perfectly with owner Lacey Quinn’s idea of a gallery combined with a salon (her latest gallery show on Michael Bunuan’s rock & roll photography opened on June 9).

“I was an art major, and I wanted to show people a different kind of experience,” Quinn said. “It was so early on I paid outright for the machine. I can’t remember what I paid for it, but I kinda got a deal.”

The Art-o-mat is simple to use. After giving $5 to the LivingRoom’s nice receptionist, you get a shiny token. Drop the coin into the machine, then pull the knob for whichever artist you like. A few seconds later, a little cardboard box wrapped in cellophane drops to the bottom like a Snickers bar. Inside is a real (though miniscule) piece of art.

North Carolina artist Clark Whittington created the first Art-o-mat machine in the summer of 1997. Since then, his vending machines have popped up all over the U.S. According to the official Art-o-mat mission statement, “We believe that art should be progressive, yet personal and approachable. What better way to do this than with a heavy, cold, steel machine?”

Most Art-o-mat machines charge $5 for a piece of art. Of each purchase, $2.50 goes to the artist. Those wanting to contribute pieces to the machines have to keep their works within very strict dimensions, as well as adhere to other, somewhat humorous regulations. “Your pieces of art SHOULD NOT CONTAIN EDIBLES, MAGNETS, BALLOONS, GLITTER, CONFETTI OR ITEMS PROCESSED WITH PEANUTS,” states the Art-o-mat artist guidelines. “No exceptions.”

Though the Art-o-mat itself is just a very compact, labor-free store that sells works of art, the Art-o-mat company tells artists wanting a piece of the action to not focus so much on consumerism. “The focus of your end product should not be about commerce,” according to the Art-o-mat artist guidelines. “Art-o-mat is about positive art experiences that can lead to long-term artist/buyer relationships. Keep in mind that in many cases, the Art-o-mat can be someone’s first art purchase. Artists who show valid effort and specifically ask ‘who bought me’ or engage in social media . . . often hear feedback from buyers.”

To be honest, unless you’re already familiar with the names displayed on the front of the Art-o-mat, picking a particular piece of art to buy has a grab-bag feel. After stopping by the LivingRoom and paying for my token, I searched the list and found nothing familiar. It wasn’t until I saw the word robot next to the name ObviousFront that I felt comfortable dropping my token into the Art-o-mat’s coin slot.

A few moments later, I was holding an old Pall Mall pack (it still had the cigarette brand’s customer-service number printed on the inside of the cover) that was repainted gold and now sported stickers saying, “MADE IN U.S.A.” and, “ONE ROBOT.” Inside was a hollowed block of triple-laminated cardboard that concealed a robot-like charm made from old resistors and capacitors.

Though no wider than a quarter, the robot was undeniably cute. A card included with the box stated, “ObviousFront Capacitor Robots are built with lead-free solder using electronic components salvaged from discarded TVs and VCRs.”

The artist ObviousFront (a.k.a. Dewitt Young) lives in Milan, Illinois. He has sold thousands of these little robot sculptures through Art-o-mat machines. “The first Capacitor people were made in the early 1980s,” Young said in a June 4 email to me. “For years, I would custom build four or five figures a year as gifts for family and friends. In 2002, I began marketing the robots and eventually came up with a simple design that I could produce multiples of.”

Young said his wife had first heard of Art-o-mat machines and, figuring it was a good fit, sent Whittington 100 of his little capacitor robots. Since then, Young said, he has sold more than 4,700 pieces.

“The project has a nice egalitarian feel to it, and the distribution and exposure are great,” Young said. “A few places that had the robots in their machine have gone on to include my larger figures in their galleries.”

As it is now, Quinn’s Art-o-mat machine is mostly empty. The salon’s receptionist had told me that the machine gets a lot of walk-in traffic, which Quinn confirmed. “I need to get it restocked,” she said. “Everybody looks me up online.”

Art-o-mat at the LivingRoom Salon, 125 Rochester St., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-0808; thelivingroomsalon.com.