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Nestled alongside rows of condoms, Advil packets, and plastic cats with waving arms, cartoonist Josh Kramer‘s miniature watercolor paintings are the newest offering in Maketto’s eclectic vending machine.
The original 3″ x 4″ artworks are a departure from the occasional City Paper contributor‘s preferred media—Kramer is trained in pen and ink work—though he dabbles in watercolor paintings of food for DCist. But it’s an even bigger change for his merchandising strategy: He’s rarely sold original work and moves most of his comics through hand-to-hand sales at conventions.
Kramer works at Boundary Road, just down the street from Maketto, the H Street NE restaurant/clothing retailer/café operated by Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang and Durkl’s Will Sharp. He dug the venue’s machine, run by D.C.-based Guerilla Vending, and sent the company a blind email. Turns out, it’s run by Toki Underground’s sous chef Mike Galyen, another regular around H Street. The two got to talking about what kind of art could work in the Maketto machine. After considering tiny comic books—Kramer’s comfort zone—they decided to try original paintings.
“I really like the idea of selling original stuff in a vending machine because there’s this thing that happens when you’re young and maybe living in a small place like an apartment,” Kramer says. “The gallery world is not a thing you would necessarily consider yourself a part of. You’re going to buy a print. I really like cheap original art for people—I’ve thought about this for a long time.”
Steve Keene, a Brooklyn artist who sells acrylic paintings on plywood by quantity, not content (five pieces that “kind of range from large to medium” for $30), was an inspiration for Kramer’s foray into art sales-via-vending machine. His $20 price point is right for people who, due to financial constraints or a lack of interest, have never bought a piece of original art. And once a buyer owns one original work, it’s a smaller barrier to clear for the next piece that catches her eye. Still, Kramer and Galyan had a hard time landing on a price. “On one hand, they’re really small…but they’re one-of-a-kind paintings, so I don’t know what to do with that. We settled on $20 because we thought it would make them seem more significant if they were at least $20,” Kramer says. “And hopefully people are reframing a little bit how they’re valuing art.”
The project recalls the small-batch art delivery service Project Dispatch, run by Corcoran grads Chandi Kelley and Rachel England, which offers low-cost monthly subscriptions to forthcoming works by a slew of emerging artists. And for artists, cheaply-made, cheaply-sold pieces can be a reliable source of income that offers freedom to work on more ambitious, costly pieces.
At Maketto, customers can buy Kramer’s representational colored pencil-and-watercolor images of satellite dishes, cooling towers, streetlamps, and other common D.C. sights. “I tried not to be too precious with these first ones… It’s a technique I haven’t really tried before,” he says. “I wanted something that would feel vibrant and playful and not too serious.”
There’s a grab-bag element to the whole thing—whatever painting happens to sit in front of the row is what the visitor will decide to buy, or not. That serendipity factor could work in Kramer’s favor. “I’ve imagined a scenario maybe somebody really likes the paintings but not the one in front, so they buy the front one to see what’s behind it,” he says.
Whether or not Kramer’s paintings tempt Maketto patrons browsing the vending machine for snacks, earbuds, or sex supplies, the artist is glad to have a new market for his work: “As somebody who now for years has stood at a table [at a convention] and tried to make a human connection with somebody so they’ll pay $4 for a comic, this is so much easier.”
Images via Josh Kramer