Next to the drinks stall at Holzmarkt 25, attached to the wall, attentive guests might spot a grey old-style vending machine. A large sticker of a giraffe on a bicycle on the otherwise humble-looking machine indicates that this could be something a bit unusual. A group of young women nearby have made the same discovery. Giggling, one of them puts a coin into the slot and pulls one of the six dispensers. She reaches in and retrieves a small cardboard box, inside of which are two temporary tattoos.
Rahel Bachem is the Berlin-based illustrator, lecturer and tattoo artist responsible for giving this old vending machine its new lease of life. These nostalgic contraptions have become the inspiration for her business model: the Tattoomat. Now found all over the city, the machines are mostly former condom and sex toy distributors. “I just wanted to advertise my ‘real’ tattoos,” says Bachem about the initial idea. “And because I love old vending machines, I thought: why not use them to offer my designs as temporary tattoos? I like the idea of people having access to my tattoos without it being a decision for life.”
Since 2019, the Neukölln native has been refurbishing old vending machines and filling them with self-designed tattoo stickers. The designs are of animals: either minimalist and graphic, or in fineline style so as to look like a real line tattoo. Bachem bought her first device, a small two-slot machine with a broken mechanism and chipped paint, from eBay’s classified ads. It cost her €150, plus repairs.
Bachem came to the Tattoomats through her work as a tattoo artist, which in turn began with her love of animals. “I’ve been drawing animals for a long time. It came to a point where I had drawers full of animal sketches and figured I had to do something with them,” she says. Bachem goes on to explain that this choice of motifs stems from a lifelong fascination. “I think the diversity of nature is simply marvellous, what amazing and crazy creatures it has created,” she says. “Each one is so perfect and impressive and sometimes totally funny and absurd. And because it’s difficult to get in touch with wild animals, I draw them. It’s my way of engaging with them and getting closer to them.” It’s unsurprising, then, that she prefers drawing pangolins, monkey eagles and striped polecats to dogs, cats and mice.
Each time Bachem draws a new animal, she adds it to her Tattoomats. She now operates 19 machines, 13 of which can be found in Berlin. There is one at the Zimt & Zucker coffee house in Tiergarten, for example, and one on the wall of the Neukölln bar Zum Krokodil, whose toilets were home to her very first vending machine which can now be found inside Beate Uwe club in Mitte. Aside from Berlin, the other Tattoomats are located in Hamburg, Heidelberg and Düren. In Neukölln, you will also find the Notes of Berlin vending machine, which Bachem worked on with the popular blog of the same name. The peel-off tattoos on sale here are based on notes and drawings from Berlin’s streets and include scrawled writing, saying things like “Männer lol” (“Men lol”), or drawings of tiny dinosaurs. A box of two peel-off tattoos is available for €4.
In the beginning, Bachem transferred her pictures onto special paper at home using a food printer and food colouring. Now, the stickers are produced by an Austrian printing company, vegan and plastic-free just like when Bachem still made them at home.
She sources the machines, most of which date back to the 1970s, either from basements, garages and attics across Berlin, or directly from antique dealers. Her latest machine, however, came straight from the toilet of a restaurant, where it was still in use. Since starting her business, Bachem has learnt a lot. Nowadays, she often repairs the machines herself to make them fit for vending again. She then applies stickers and paints the outsides before installing them.
Bachem’s Tattoomats have even made their way into the sunny spheres of German celebrity. Henning May from the indie rock band AnnenMayKantereit is a big fan. “He approached me when I was refilling a vending machine and told me how excited he was by the idea, and that he often wears temporary tattoos himself. He then ordered a whole box and now always hands them out to his friends and crew members. The other day, when we bumped into each other again, he showed me that he keeps a spare in his wallet.”
Recently, Bachem has worked with the nature conservation organisation WWF, for whom she has developed a series on endangered animals, in collaboration with screenwriter Martin Rosefeldt. The boxes contain illustrated peel-off tattoos and posters made by Bachem as well as small profiles of each animal written by Rosefeldt. “These vending machines will soon be installed in natural history museums and zoos, where they will give children in particular a poetic and informative introduction to the animal world,” reports Bachem.
Already in contact with museum officials, it is clear the creative entrepreneur has sparked something of a tattoo mania.