Pittsburgh artist Nikki Lauren Burfield in Lawrenceville's Kickback Pinball Cafe in February 2023. Photo by Lisa Cunningham.

Tiltcycle Transforms Unsalvageable Pinball Machines Into Upcycled Art

by Lisa Cunningham


March 20, 2023

Where do pinball machines go when they die? If they're lucky, the games end up in the hands of Pittsburgh artist Nikki Lauren Burfield.

Flippers once used to battle stubborn steel balls are reborn as decorative keychains; pop bumper caps become nightlights, illuminating rooms with classic arcade expressions like "10 points when lit." And those gorgeous playfields, the graphic foundation of every desirable pinball machine vying for the attention of gamers with pockets full of quarters? In Burfield's hands, they become stunning works of art, worthy of displaying in the most eclectic of homes.

Even the wooden cabinets are put into use at Tiltcycle, where Burfield has been selling her wide variety of colorful pinball-themed wares for over a decade.

"It's always been amazing to see something have a second chance, and that's always been the philosophy behind my art," Burfield says from inside Lawrenceville's Kickback Pinball Cafe, a coffee shop and arcade where she frequently can be found chasing high scores as a member of the Pittsburgh Women's Pinball League. 

Burfield says the love of the game came before the art, and she initially worked on repairing salvageable machines, not upcycling them. But an invitation from fellow Steel City pinball enthusiast Brian Mendelssohn to join a group pinball-themed art show at his trendy Lawrenceville gift shop, Wildcard, gave her the confidence to continue repurposing parts of unusable machines into pieces of art.

"I sold things in the parking lot, like, walking into the show," she says beaming, a moment that still clearly brings satisfaction over a decade after the event.

A full-time, self-taught artist who names both Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat as influences, Burfield now largely focuses on selling commissioned work, which typically will set her collectors back about a grand. Peruse her website and you'll find a wide variety of playing fields for people to select from to be transformed into anything from a full restoration with LED upgrades to a jaw-dropping mixed-media collage.

(One of her most impressive works is Audrey Hepburn, an eight-foot-tall art portrait of the classic film star. Below a silhouetted photograph of the actress in her iconic white gloves, recycled pinball machine materials​ stand in for her gown, cascading down the playing field in a brilliant array of colorful graphics and dazzling lights.)

But Burfield's work is also still accessible to fans of pop art with smaller budgets. Her flipper keychains or pop bumper nightlights, for example, sell for $15-25, and she plans to unveil a series of pinball-themed jewelry in the near future.

She says she grew up "poor as f—-“ in rural Ohio, so she understands the need for affordable artwork. Dumpster diving, she says, once helped her make new things with odds and ends to entertain herself.

"My entire childhood was going behind the Kmart, the IGA, the Radio Shack," she says. "We went through dumpsters and I found it was rewarding."

Now, she's traded dumpster diving for salvaging old machines from places like abandoned warehouses. If you've seen the History channel’s reality show "American Pickers," which features the hosts driving across the country in search of antiques and assorted artifacts to resell, you can already picture the thrill she gets when finding a bulk stash of old games. 

"You're, like, this hasn't seen the light of day in 20 years," she says with an excited whisper, adding that she'll often test dust-covered pieces with her fingertip to get a glimpse of the condition of the machines before purchasing. 

And if she scores a machine that can be repaired? Burfield says she will make sure it's refurbished. Even if it breaks her heart to give it up.

"The goal," she says, "is always to restore to a playable game.”

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Audrey Hepburn by Nikki Lauren Burfield. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lauren Burfield.
An upcycled Tiltcycle flipper keychain. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lauren Burfield..
Pinball shadow boxes by Nikki Lauren Burfield. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lauren Burfield.
An upcycled Tiltcycle sparrow collage. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lauren Burfield.


Lisa Cunningham is a regular contributor for The Green Voice Weekly Newsletter