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In Montreal, vintage cigarette machines sell indie art

They're called Distroboto: reclaimed vending machines retrofitted to sell everything from fridge magnets to CDs and poetry. All for $2.

This battered, 50-year-old cigarette machine sells works in English and French by Montreal writers.
Tim Hornyak/CNET

MONTREAL--For the first time in maybe 20 years, I got a new cassette tape.

It's a bitchin' mix of 1970s funk tunes and it sounds delicious on my car stereo, which fortunately is old enough to be able to play it. But the best thing about this tape is that it came out of a vending machine.

Distroboto is a nonprofit network of machines in Montreal that have been retrofitted to sell works by independent artists. They spit out music, literature, and accessories, all for $2 a pop.

The network launched its 12th machine this week in a bar called Notre Dame des Quilles, a retro-hipster joint that features a mini bowling alley. The latest Distroboto is a vintage cigarette machine from the 1960s that mainly carries zines, which are self-published, small-circulation anthologies or magazines.

I plop in a toonie in the vending machine and out come two pins with designs based on the Montreal subway. They're wrapped in newspaper and an old cigarette pack so the machine can handle them easily.

The ancient machine also stocks creatively designed magnets, comics, and mini-CDs by local talent in Montreal, known for its burgeoning music, arts, and festival scenes.

"This city is so full of artists and writers," Louis Rastelli, an author and cultural historian who heads Distroboto, told CNET. "It's one of the many ways the public can use to discover the scene. And it's a way of getting art into the community and connecting artists with the people around them."

Rastelli began stocking old 1960s cigarette machines with art in 2001, putting them in cafes, bars, and libraries, and has distributed works by roughly 1,000 artists since then. Works have included paper dolls, albums of discarded photos from processing labs, and Tijuana bibles, a genre of dirty cartoons from the 1930s. Check out more Distroboto art here and in the gallery below.

"It's a bit of a Kinder Egg experience because you don't see what you're getting until you put your two bucks in," adds Rastelli. "If everything were prominently displayed on the machine, it would take away some of the fun."

Distroboto was inspired by Art-o-Mat, a network of about 100 old cigarette machines, many of which are visually stunning, that sell art across the U.S. and overseas.

Distroboto's machines, though, are beat-up and junky; Rastelli has been saving more of them from the scrapyard since Quebec outlawed smoking in bars in 2006. They can also sell larger artworks than Art-o-Mats because Canadian cigarettes would come in larger packs, he says.

In an age where so much creative output has migrated online, these physical throwbacks seem quaint, but Rastelli says analog and online can work together.

"Pretty much every visual art item we sell, a fridge magnet or something, will have a Tumblr address on the back," says Rastelli. "It's all very complimentary with online stuff.

"A lot of artists, though, will tell you that the digital version is a version of a physical thing. There's only an MP3 album because there's a physical album, and the MP3 album is the convenient version of it. When you're creating you want to be able to control the experience.

"Whether it's a book or a zine or an album, the fact that you're putting on a physical item -- it's got a jacket with graphics on it and only the songs you want the person to hear in that experience. This is their vision and it's in a bubble."