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Bumming Indie Artwork From Retro Cigarette Machines

In Montreal and beyond, vintage dispensers get locals hooked on zines and cassettes.

Alanah Heffez/Flickr

A few nights ago, as my friends dodged elbows at a sticky bar top in Montreal, I crouched and fed quarters into a rejiggered vending machine humming, fluorescent, in the corner.

I was hoping to fish out a booklet with a constellation freckled across its cover. The machine used to spit out cigarettes; now, it dispenses pocket-sized works of art—everything from comic books to cassettes—for $2 apiece.

The machine is one of about 15 under the Distroboto umbrella, a project managed by the nonprofit Archive Montreal (ARCMTL). The group has set itself the task of supporting and preserving local underground culture—the relics of which may not be entombed in museums or government-run archives.

Montreal has plenty of bohemian pockets and a vivid art scene. But in the 1990s, it became harder for local artists, musicians, and writers to sell their work on consignment. Many of the shops that had embraced that model had shuttered, or preferred to work through distributors; there weren’t a lot of other outlets. Some artists worried that the drought would hamper creative work. “Why bother putting out your own cassette or your own zine if there’s nowhere to sell them?” asks Louis Rastelli, the co-founder and current director of Archive Montreal.  

Rastelli knew of Art-O-Mat, a project out of North Carolina that retrofitted cigarette dispensers as vending machines for art works the same size as a pack of smokes. Rastelli corralled a bunch of artists and writers and they bought a scuffed 1960s machine. The first Distroboto landed in the bar performance venue Casa del Popolo, in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, in 2001. Since then, Rastelli estimates that they’ve collaborated with 1,200 artists to sell some 100,000 objects across Montreal’s cafes, performance spaces, and bars (plus cousins in Quebec City, Dunham, and France).

When the group doubled down on print near the turn of the millennium, “a whole lot of people told us we were the biggest idiots ever, because the internet was just about to replace all of that,” Rastelli says. It didn’t shake out that way. For one thing, stringent federal and provincial crackdowns on tobacco sales made decommissioned machines easier to come by. Another Distroboto machine was just installed last week, Rastelli says. And the happily analog machines aren’t incompatible with the swing towards digital life: Rastelli told CNET that many artists promote their Tumblr presence on the packaging.


The ARCMTL team continues to build their brick-and-mortar archive—now 25,000 volumes strong—by accessioning a copy of each zine that passes through the Distroboto machines or arrives at the fest. The group also swaps with other archives, trading exhibition catalogs or postcards for other material—and they trawl on recycling day, keeping an eye out for boxes of ephemera. “We’re lucky that old zines and old student newspapers, these aren’t the kinds of things that people are looking to put on eBay or even sell at a garage sale,” Rastelli says. The archive hosts students and scholars who come to leaf through the collection. Rastelli says this maps on to a wider trend of zines being viewed as legitimate artifacts—a push mirrored by zine exhibitions at venues such as the New York Public Library. ARCMTL holds a yearly festival for small presses, comics, and zines. Expozine draws some 270 vendors and 20,000 visitors.

The American Art-O-Mats have held steady, too: Hundreds of artists have placed work in dozens of locations across the U.S., in grocery stores, cafes, libraries, universities, restaurants, bookstores, and museums. When the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum installed one in 2010, one artist’s work sold out 22 minutes after the machine flickered to life.

Rastelli says the machines can help override any stereotypes of zines as a ghost of vanity press, or the exclusive terrain of “someone who writes really bad poetry.” Art-O-Mat’s founder, the artist Clark Whittington, told Readers Digest that the unfussy machines and slashed price tag also subvert stereotypes about art being highfalutin and inaccessible. “You get to own the art, it’s made by a living artist, and it’s convenient,” he said.

It’s convenient for the artists, too—and that’s part of the key to keeping artistic practice vibrant and flourishing. The small size, Rastelli says, offers a constraint that can spur creative work. If they accepted everything and anything, “people would probably take forever trying to think of something,” Rastelli says. With the marching orders to make something affordable and petite enough to “not get jammed in the machine,” he adds, he sees tons of creative stuff: silkscreened magnets, mini CDs, experimental cassettes, poetry, and comics spanning topics including confessions and sketches from trips. They’re cheap to produce—handmade, but not precious. And the format, he adds, “pushes people towards what we always thought of zines to be—small, individual picture of a time and place.”

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.