The origins of Tarot can be traced back to the 1400s, where the art first came to life as playing cards in France and Italy. The Italian tarocchi (as it was also known) and French tarot of Marsielles mixed and merged, forming the basis of what we know as a modern tarot deck. Almost three hundred years later, the cards became a divination tool for cartomancers, and the decks melded with the playing cards popular culture knows well. The complex imagery and combinations imbued early designs with rich cultural associations, full of magic and metaphor for the brave souls ready to map the reaches of the mystical world. Since then, the transformation from entertainment to oracle opened the door to a mystical and symbolic language, one that has been attracting the exploratory eye of artists ever since.
The Tarot system consists of 78 cards—the numbered minor arcana, the court cards, and the visually arresting major arcana, including Death, the Fool, the High Priestess. The task of interpreting and illustrating the full suite has captured the imagination some of the greatest artistic minds in history, from Surrealists like Andre Breton and Dalí, to the psychedelic work of Bob Dylan collaborator Martin Sharp in the late 1960s. Today, a new generation of independent artists are reinterpreting Tarot decks for the modern age, spurred on by a renewed popularity amongst spirit seekers looking to find their fate in the cards.
Naha Armády, senior tarot reader at the LA based metaphysical store House of Intuition, has spent almost a decade as a professional reader and tarot archivist. Armády views the current boom of independent artist decks as part of a larger cycle of history. “I think that I saw a huge influx of that five years ago in 2012,” she says, noting that when she started teaching in 2010, her Tarot classes might have only five or six students, a number that jumped to upwards of twenty just two years later. She believes that “the trend mirrors historical trends. You have a dark period, then a renaissance in which all of these ideas have a resurgence. Then you get a period scientific growth, and then a new period of repression. The growth of information fuels a struggle to control information, and so the cycle begins again.”
In the Euro-centric history, this cycle moves through well known periods: the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, the Spiritualism movement. In the 1800s, when Spiritualists popularized the metaphysical in Victorian England, Tarot hadn’t yet come to the United States. In fact, that wouldn’t happen until the 1950s, when Stuart Kaplan and US Game Systems began distributing the card decks the community now regards as classics, like the Rider Waite Smith, the Thoth and the Aquarian. By the late 1960s, independent decks that drew on psychedelia became popular. Armády puts the trend in context: “I would say that’s the last time we had a large crop of indie decks. And then that gets stigmatized as part of the hippie movement. And as we get more technological, we see a new growth of interest, people seeking answers on a deeper level. You can’t have supply unless there is a demand. You can’t have readers – and artists making decks for them – unless people are looking to get readings. And I think that’s part of that larger growth cycle of society.”
Theresa Reed, also known as The Tarot Lady, has been reading tarot for thirty five years. Her first decks – the Marseilles and the Rider Waite Smith – are both considered classics, but at the time they were the only ones available to her. “Because I didn’t have the internet or the ability to hit the city, I had no idea there were other decks out there,” she explains. She’s seen Tarot rise and fall in popularity over the past two decades, but feels that there is something special in the current boom of independent decks. “We’re seeing more and more decks that are giving people of color and LGBTQ people images that they can relate to,” she says. “I think this is important – and necessary. I don’t remember a rise like this previously, but I’m sure glad it is happening now.”
The rise of this new boom in decks has two big catalysts. Explains Reed, “It’s easier than ever to create your own decks, and when you factor in crowdfunding, it’s also more affordable.” This new access also frees up designers and their customers to skip over the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, which were used to the best way to ensure distribution and funding once a deck was produced. In fact, with a preordering arrangement, artists are able to support themselves to work on a deck, rather than to produce a finished product before seeking a customer. They are also able to retain the rights to the art and production – or sell them at a profit, if they wish. Either way, it’s Tarot enthusiasts and readers who benefit. Of course, there are drawbacks to the independent model, which is why some decks are picked up by major publishers. “As a stockist, it can be hard to get indie decks consistently for a high volume retail store, which House of Intuition is,” explains Armády. But with a large amount of small but thriving digital and brick and mortar occult stores, as well as direct sales from the artist, indies can be accessible to a large audience.
The indie deck that sits at the helm of this boom is the Wild Unknown, artist Kim Krans’ dreamy, animal focused deck. The Wild Unknown (which has spawned a slew of related products, from calendars to coloring books), resonates with beginners and experienced readers alike, based on its sales and visibility after being picked up by major publisher HarperCollins last year. Krans’ work is representative of the experience Tarot enthusiasts are looking for: a beautiful deck with a connection to tradition, but with a unique approach to imagery. When searching for new decks, enthusiasts are now able to find re-interpretions of the cards that embrace a spectrum of gender, sexuality, and race. Artists often have this in mind as the design, as in the cases of major arcana only Black Power deck, produced in a collaboration between musician King Khan, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and designer Micheal Eaton. Offerings from the Slutist or the Numinous embrace traditional imagery filtered through a wide range of identities. In a nod to modern convenience, the Golden Thread Tarot creates a community beyond the cards though an app that connects to readers virtually wherever they are.
For artists looking to create their own decks, small batch, full color printing has become comparatively cheap and easy, requiring no big publishing contract. Independent financing is now available through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo (to give you just an idea of their popularity, there are over three hundred Tarot projects currently on Kickstarter alone). “I’ve got my third eye on those sites to keep myself aware of new decks,” says Armády, who regularly combs through crowdfunding sites for new projects. “There are just so many coming up.”
In the age of social media, Tarot seems perfectly attuned to meet our current cultural consumption. “Tarot has really survived when other forms of divination have dropped off, and there’s a reason for that. Maybe it is because it’s easier to throw a deck of cards into your bag rather than carry around your crystal ball,” jokes Armády, though she’s not far off. A tactile and visually arresting object that is supremely portable, Tarot decks also facilitate connection and community through platforms like Instagram. It’s also perfect for the rise of live video broadcasting, allowing readers to connect with individual clients or massive online audiences as suits their practice. The images artists create for Tarot decks are immediate, archetypal, metaphorical. They pull from experiences and stories that we absorb through our collective culture, not to mention serving as an excellent commercial object.
Catland Books, Brooklyn’s haven for all things occult and esoteric, is exactly the kind of independent store in which independent decks thrive. Damon Stang, the senior reader at Catland, has been engaged with Tarot since he was a child. At a young age, Stang stumbled upon Tarot resources like the The Encyclopedia of Tarot in his local library, which opened a wide world of decks to him. Later, he was taken under the wing of mentor with an extensive collection. Stang sees the independence of the current tarot deck designers as a boon for artists who wish to work outside major publishing contracts, noting that there are two sides to self-publication for a reader looking at buying decks. “Some self published decks take a freestyle or whimsical approach to certain key design elements that I feel are essential to the oracular structure of Tarot, so although they may be beautiful art, I am unable to use them in readings,” he points out. Even so, he follows along with crowdfunding campaigns and contributes to decks that excite him. And even though that first deck wasn’t necessarily an art piece, he still cherished it. “I still have my very first Tarot pack, which is now completely beaten up. I love it so much that even though I can’t use it anymore, I should get it framed.”
For both Reed and Stang, what really works for them is the structure and the quality of a deck. Indies are now often on luxurious stock, with gilt edges, or sturdy boxes. But at the end of the day, durability is king. “I’m a Rider Waite Smith gal at heart so it’s always my workhorse deck,” notes Reed. “Frankly, I don’t care if it’s mass produced or indie as long as it doesn’t fall apart with a vigorous shuffle!”