This Viral Print Vending Machine Will Give You a Work of Art for Four Quarters

Posted inFine Art

Any printmaker, or artist for that matter, knows that making art means making a mess. Getting lost in the flow-state that many designers credit as a part of their creative process might result in scribbles on nearby napkins, splatters of paint on the floor, or remnants of clay forming a crust on their forearms. When all is said and done, a few rags and pumps of Gojo soap can scrub away just about anything— but after all of that, you still have to do laundry.

Maine-based printmaker Ana Inciardi is no stranger to ink stains, especially when her apartment in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood doubled as an art studio and living space. But when the national coin shortage struck, mounting piles of clothes and rags taunted her from the corners of her apartment. 

“I ran my business out of my living room for a while,” Inciardi told me in a phone interview. “There was ink all over the house. Even today, you still can’t find a wall without a blue or red handprint on it.”

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for this innovative printmaker, necessity took the form of quarters. She needed a way to get coins for the washing machine, and as this took place when the initial outbreak of COVID-19 prompted stay-at-home orders, she needed to do so without coming into contact with anyone. 

Image by Dana Valletti

Over the course of the next few months, Inciardi set to work designing a machine that would get her the coins she desperately needed in exchange for one of her specialities: miniature prints. She outfitted a prototype with a few small linocut prints she had yet to frame, cut them down to size, and reverse-engineered the machine to dispense the works when she slid in some coins. While Inciardi did a trial run with high hopes, she feared her prints might get mangled on their way out of the machine. To her delight, her print slid out safe and sound in a protective sleeve.

Inciardi aptly named her coin-collecting device the Mini Print Vending Machine. It makes a simple proposition: slide in four quarters and receive a surprise print. The machine is loaded with whimsical linocuts of all kinds of foods, from eggs and sardines to poppy seed bagels and jars of pickles. Every print is signed, labeled with the name of the food it depicts, and notated with that particular print’s number within the edition. 

The mini print vending machine has taken on a life of its own on Instagram, amassing over 16 million views. Once it went viral, Inciardi’s machine spurred a demand that outpaced what she alone could produce. She has since hired a few studio assistants to help her keep up with the floods of inquiries from all over the world, enabling Inciardi to share her printmaking with thousands of people at an affordable price. Inciardi reaches a larger audience than ever before, but she finds motivation beyond the likes and comments. 

“My favorite thing about my Mini Print Vending Machine is how accessible it allows art to become,” Inciardi said. “Four quarters for a two-color linocut feels pretty special to me. Since it is affordable, kids love to use it, but adults come back for more too. It has a nostalgic feeling– similar to machines you can find while exiting a supermarket, but instead of a little toy, a real work of art comes out.” 

Inciardi’s invention is a breath of fresh air in a time when ordering online has made purchasing art feel more transactional than ever before. Even after businesses reopened and coins became a little easier to come by, Inciardi continued to sell her art at local businesses with locked-in prices, determined, in part, by design. Using a vending machine to disseminate art helped Inciardi’s work get attention in the last year, though the idea itself took inspiration from an experience she had years earlier.

The Mini Print Vending Machine is a riff on the Art-o-mat®, an invention North Carolinian artist Clark Whittington introduced in June 1997. In his original design, he outfitted a modified cigarette vending machine with photos and prints that were too small to sell at shows. “I first encountered an Art-o-mat at a gallery in Bushwick as a kid,” Inciardi said. “My parents put a few dollars in, and out came a mysterious little box. Inside was an actual bee, gilded. It sits in a prominent place in their living room to this day.”

Something about the machine’s nod to the 1950’s made it feel lost in time, and the mystery of not knowing what would come out made it all the more appealing to Inciardi. Her Mini Print Vending Machines are designed rather than refurbished, though the idea behind it is recycled from other artists who saw vending as a way to connect with people. While printmaking is predictable and precision-based by nature, the element of randomness in Inciardi’s surprise prints lends a sense of novelty to the otherwise templated art that comes out of the machine.

Image by Dana Valletti

Inciardi cites one of her central interests in printmaking being the idea that a single, carved-up piece of linoleum can go on to produce hundreds of theoretically identical works of art. While mass-production is fundamental to the nature of printmaking, every iteration of a print has slight deviations from ink patterns, pressure, and the texture of the paper. The same tension between individual identity and mass production can be seen in the subject matter her art revolves around: food. 

A marketplace selling bundles of bananas stocks their shelves with seemingly identical bundles of curved yellow fruits, but on closer examination, each banana bears a unique shape, coloration, texture, and of course, taste. Inciardi taps into this nuance of the individual among the masses, not only through speckles of ink and pencil markings on her prints, but in her creation of a machine that dispenses handmade art rather than processed snacks. 

Inciardi plays with questions about the ownership of objects and ideas, consumer culture, and food processing through her renditions of familiar foods and package designs. The challenge of having to think in reverse to sketch and carve a print forces Inciardi to abstract the image she carves from the object she studies. As her practice progresses and takes on new forms of mechanical dispensing, larger questions about mechanization and mass production permeate all her prints— no matter how small. 

Image by Dana Valletti

As her follower count continues to grow, Inciardi refuses to compromise the integrity of the Mini Print Vending Machine. The prices of her prints haven’t changed, and she still makes each by hand in the studio space she rents in Portland. Today, Inciardi is growing her vending machine business with ten machines touring around the country. Local businesses in cities like Denver, Newport, Boston, and Brooklyn can rent out machines for two months at a time before Inciardi and her team move them to a new location. 

Though her tiny prints are making a big splash, there’s more to Inciardi’s practice than vending machines. In addition to the catalog of work she sells on her online store, you can find Inciardi’s brightly-colored designs on restaurant menus, home goods, dresses and cardigans by Rachel Antonoff, and even local farm trucks. Inciardi is continuing in a tradition of bringing art to unexpected places— and more importantly, making it feel more like an affordable, accessible part of everyday life. 

Rather than burying her frustrations in piles of laundry, Ana Inciardi found a fresh idea in the chore that once held her back from making art. She recognized that a few coins could pay for a load of laundry as easily as they could a work of art— as an artist, she has the power to set the price for her art and chooses to sell her work in a playful, affordable manner. Long after it accrued a stockpile of quarters that could sustain years of laundry payments, the Mini Print Vending Machine continues to feed an enthusiasm for affordable, accessible art— four quarters at a time. 

The art that comes out of the Mini Print Vending machine draws people in, but something more than the novelty of the machine seems to keep them coming back. While Inciardi’s machines have been seen by millions online, it’s only those who get to experience the Mini Print Vending Machine in person who can marvel at the invisible traces of the human touch behind this unmanned machine. Watching the customer’s face as they put quarters into the mini print vending machine one by one and not knowing what they will get out is the best feeling,” Inciardi reflected. “It feels so good to be making something that brings joy to others.”

Photography by Dana Valletti