How tarot is “essentially the greatest comic ever made”
Tarot is often associated with divination and mysticism. But historically, picture card packs had a variety of uses and styles, including storytelling: the combination of these pursuits is what makes contemporary creatives keep coming back to tarot design centuries later.
In the 14th century, wealthy families in Italy commissioned expensive artist-made decks known as “carte da trionfi” (“cards of triumph”), where the imagery paralleled the mechanics of a game. Randomly drawn cards would make a new tale every time the game was played, and decisions of players influenced the story. In this way, tarot was like an early, illustrated choose-your-own-adventure.
For many illustrators and designers drawing their own versions today, this is the allure of tarot—a laid out deck is like a comic strip, but the reader has their own unique experience and must collaborate with the drawings to create the narrative. It’s therefore no surprise that Behance is filled with students trying their hand at updating well-known decks such as the Tarot de Marseille or the Rider-Waite sets.
There are nearly 1,300 known designs for decks from the period between the Renaissance and late-Gothic eras to now, from modern-day mystic packs to suit every kind of spiritual bent, to Hello Kitty and Star Trek decks. The Tarot de Marseille, used by mystics, occultists, and people looking for instructional advice beyond the “yes” or “no” of a magic 8 ball, became popular when it was published by Drimaud in 1969, and it probably originated from the 17th century. Wood block illustrations colored in by hand define the style associated with this pack. Director Alejandro Jodorowsky created his own version of it in 2011, drawn to the fact that even though tarot is “sacred” it’s also simply “a game.”
In 1909, the Rider-Waite deck was published by the Roder Company, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith from the instructions of academic and mystic A. E. Waite. This has now become one of the most popular decks used in the English-speaking world. These cards—with the lolloping, friendly fool, the upside-down hanged-man, and the little baby sun riding on a horse—have become the basis of numerous updates and versions. Oliver Hibert’s 2014 psychedelic design of the pack, which oozes with neon rainbows, over-sized eyeballs, and trippy figures, is particularly striking.
I spoke with five contemporary illustrators and designers to find out what drew them to tarot and how they have navigated the difficult task of re-invigorating centuries old iconography, ancient allegories and religious symbols to create something distinctly of the now.
Michael Eaton’s Black Power tarot (in collaboration with King Khan)
“I got in touch with King Khan online as I sometimes contact people about doing album artwork or T-shirts, and when I did he was excited about the timing as he had this idea for the Black Power tarot and thought I could illustrate it.
“Jodorowsky’s deck was the building block. King Khan learned tarot from him so we used it as the basis of all the people in the deck. They are in the same pose, looking the same direction, which is important to make it useable.
“I’ve only personally done a reading once and it was in Belfast after a King Khan & BBQ show. I had no knowledge of the tarot at all before doing this, apart from just knowing it existed. I learned how much of a skill it takes and just generally how much it really means to people.
“The most interesting to create was the Sun Ra card who is Le Soleil, just because I’m a big fan of his music and the Sun Ra Arkestra, and I think it’s maybe the best likeness visually.”
Kati Forner’s The Dreslyn tarot
“Brooke Taylor Corcia, founder and CEO of fashion store The Dreslyn, commissioned me to create a minimal yet elevated tarot deck that would interest their customers. We wanted a refreshing take on the historically heavily illustrated tarot decks, conveying the energy behind each card using as few elements as possible and through borrowing the symbology and geometric figures from traditional decks.
“The Lovers and Hermit cards were the most interesting to conceptualize; they are both complicated ideas to convey in such a simple way.
“But I have to say that the Death card is my favorite, which has the absence of a representational design and is in all black, a stark contrast from the other all white cards.”
John Lisle’s Missy Magazine tarot
“Missy approached me after they had seen a cover I created for Vym Magazine. They expressed how they really enjoyed the 3D style, and I think they were on board for something similarly camp for their cards, which they printed as editorial illustrations.
“I was apprehensive about the cards because I made them so cheeky. My first round of sketches was much closer to the traditional tarot, because I think I was nervous about offending anyone. But the more research I did, I realized that people into tarot are very open-minded and seem to enjoy non-traditional designs.
“I found the Death card most challenging, because I was requested to do an all female deck, and it was difficult to represent a skeleton as masculine or feminine. I ended up with something arguably more masculine, as I put Death in a chic trench coat instead of the usual flowing, hooded cape. But I think it’s a good pause from the other femme characters.”
Victoria Goldsmith’s La Luna and Sol tarot
“My designs for La Luna and Sol was a self-initiated project inspired by the old tarot card designs. I like how the old illustrations look so timeless and have such character in the illustrations. I wanted to create my own and make them have that distressed mythological feel.
“When researching into tarot cards, they all have links to the natural elements, so in my design I used the symbols earth, air, fire, and water. The illustrations are hand-drawn in pen and ink, then I used Photoshop to play with the colors and give them the distressed feel. The moon is my favorite design because I have always been a bit obsessed with the way a moon is drawn with a face throughout history: it has a bit of a creepy feel but I like that.
“The sun and moon are opposites, so I would like to think they are about the balance in life. Maybe the sun means you have high hopes and on a bright path into the future, whereas the moon means you are hiding from your destiny. I like to think if I played a hand at my cards I get dealt the sun card.”
Jesse Moynihan’s tarot
“I was drawn to the tarot through a conversation with fellow comic book artist, Dash Shaw. He convinced me that the tarot is essentially the greatest comic book ever made. Out of a single set of 78 images, an infinite amount of stories can be told. It’s flexible and specific.
“It’s a tool for self-knowledge and a practical gateway to magical perspective. There’s nothing else like it.
“It’s hard to know where to start, or what deck to read from—so I did my research and decided to go with the Marseille: the first mass-produced deck. Only a few books have been written on the Marseille in English.
“Stuart Kaplan, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Yoav Ben-Dov are good resources for getting a grasp of what is sometimes considered a less friendly, more opaque deck. The minor cards in the Marseille are not figurative and so the symbolism can be difficult to interpret. This is the deck I use and have been primarily studying for the past five years or so.
“As a way of furthering my understanding, I decided to render a deck based on my Marseille research; placing it in the lineage of earlier hand painted decks, and later esoteric decks like the Rider-Waite Smith deck.
“I wanted to understand where these symbolic images came from and how later occultists drew meaning from, and sometimes bastardized them. Then I wanted to create a deck that would make some of these meanings a little more apparent (than the Marseille) and bit more dynamic in terms of composition and design, while maintaining a reverence for the Marseille’s color and symbol system. The Marseille resulted from the contributions and subtractions of many, not just one mind. It’s a testament to the collective brain and spiritual power of our 15th century ancestors.
“I spend about a month researching each card and generating ideas on how to approach the design without disrupting the message.”
This article originally appeared in AIGA’s Eye on Design.