The Ellis Deck: An Interview with Taylor Ellis

ellis 9 of swordsThe Ellis Deck
Created and illustrated by Taylor Ellis
Self-published in 2013 in a first edition of 100, reprinted in a second edition of 300

Taylor Ellis began studying tarot in 2009 while living in the Moon Mansion, the Methodist Episcopal church-turned-artistic community founded by artist John Ashley Bellamy in 1972. He describes his first encounter with the cards, in a reading given by Bellamy, as a “Where have you been all my life?” moment. Not long after, he began the process of creating the art for what would become his own tarot, the Ellis Deck.

In 2013 the art for the Ellis Deck premiered in a show titled “78 on Deck” at the WAAS Gallery in Dallas, TX. Ellis produced 100 decks to accompany the show, half of which sold to attendees. The remaining decks very quickly sold out when Ellis appeared at the annual San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium later that year, resulting in a second printing. The deck was named the fourth most popular deck of 2013 in Aeclectic Tarot’s year-end poll.

The Ellis Deck is a unique combination of the old and the new. Created using modern technology, the style is simultaneously retro and contemporary, blending elements of 70’s fantasy art and modern anime while remaining entirely original. The cards radiate with both joy and sadness, and the stories told by the suits of the Minor Arcana are particularly vibrant and imaginative. To me it’s one of the most effective of the recent decks, succeeding both as art and as a divinatory tool, and I very much enjoyed speaking with Taylor Ellis about its creation.

To learn more about Taylor Ellis, and to purchase the Ellis Deck, visit Ellistrations.

ellis moonHOW FAMILIAR WERE YOU WITH THE TAROT BEFORE BEING INTRODUCED TO IT BY ASHLEY BELLAMY?

I was aware of the tarot, but not familiar with it. I probably had seen a deck or two. I wasn’t raised in an extremely religious household, but there definitely wasn’t a lot of occult stuff around. But my mom has always been into the zodiac and the Chinese and Western horoscopes, so I had exposure to the metaphysical in that way. But before I had a reading from Ashley, I had never had a tarot reading before.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO CREATE A DECK OF YOUR OWN?

Ashley gave me that first reading, and I took a picture of it on my phone. At the time I was working at a bar, and my routine before I went into work was to sit at a coffee shop for a while and kind of prepare myself mentally for the process of transitioning from my intellectual self to my sort of idiot self over the course of the evening. I was sitting there looking up the meanings of the cards online, and I thought, “These cards really do inspire stories in people.” And I wanted to do that myself. I wanted to draw pictures that would allow someone to create their own narration to go with it.

Initially I think my ego really did want reading the cards to be a parlor trick that I would do to impress people, but the reading that Ashley did for me gave me a kind of path to follow, which was that this should be about turning that light on in other people. There’s a children’s book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. It has these really beautiful black-and-white drawings, and one or two sentences on the facing page. They’re writing prompts, designed to encourage the viewer to make up a story about what’s happening. I was inspired by that kind of thing. If I could use my abilities to create gasoline for the imagination, I wanted to do it. That’s when I decided that this was a task to take up.

DID YOU HAVE ANY TREPIDATION BECAUSE YOU HADN’T BEEN STUDYING THE TAROT FOR VERY LONG?

ellis 5 of rodsI initially thought that this would be a very long project. I thought that the deck would be something that I worked on over the course of my entire life, and that it would be finished whenever it got finished. What really accelerated it was carrying my Aquarian Tarot deck around with me and doing readings for other people. I did a lot of them in the bars, and afterward I would go home and devour books about tarot. My understanding of the tarot got fast-tracked by a vigorous study of the cards. I devoured any book that came my way. It wasn’t enough for me to know what the 3 of Swords meant from one tarot book. I wanted to know several different versions of it. I wanted to know where this meaning came from, and why this or that was there on a card. I did a lot of reading about why something was there, because if it didn’t resonate with me, then it wouldn’t really be the Ellis deck. At first I thought it may sound egotistical that I had given the deck my name, but the reason I did that is because it was the deck that was coming from me. Naming it the Ellis Deck was me saying, “This is my understanding of the tarot at this point. Here it is for you if you find it useful.”

HOW DID THE CREATION OF THE DECK PROGRESS?

The first card I worked on for the deck was the Chariot, which I began while I was living at the Moon Mansion. Then I did the Empress, and that was finished, so I moved on to Temperance. But it just wasn’t working. It was probably no small coincidence that I was a functioning alcoholic bartender at the time, which is why the concept of temperance was escaping me. So I put the project aside. About two years later I got into the habit of going to a coffee shop to work on my illustration work, and one day when I was there I met a woman who had just opened a gallery and was looking to represent people. She looked through my portfolio and found the Empress card, and she said, “This is it. You need to finish this.”

ellis hermitAt that time I was actually getting a little tired of living at Moon Mansion. I wanted to do something else. So I moved out and eventually ended up in Denver. While I was there I got the Fool through the Hierophant done. Not long after that I realized that I shouldn’t be working on the cards in order. I got stuck on the Hermit, and had a real wild time trying to settle down and make some art. So I made myself work on the Minor Arcana and finish those before I went back to work on the Majors again. By then I was living back at the Moon Mansion. It’s always been a wonderful environment for getting art done.

THE HERMIT IS ACTUALLY ONE OF MY FAVORITES FROM THE DECK, SO IT’S INTERESTING TO HEAR THAT HE GAVE YOU SUCH TROUBLE.

Oh, man, if I could show you some of the early versions of that. It was a real failure to launch at first. No matter what I tried doing, it kept coming out as just an old man in a purple cloak with a beard. It wasn’t feeling very original. But those aspects were also the things from the traditional representation of the Hermit that I knew I really wanted to keep, so I wasn’t sure how to do it. I like to have a lot of character going on, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to give this mostly shrouded man some character. Then I focused on expanding the idea of being a hermit to include this big turtle and the snail, and suddenly the image was about these three hermits hanging out together, not being so hermit-like in that they’re a group of three, but each being a hermit in his own respect.

WERE THERE OTHER CARDS THAT GAVE YOU PARTICULAR TROUBLE.

ellis temperanceTemperance was a really tricky one, because as I mentioned, I hadn’t had a lot of understanding of temperance yet personally for myself. I was still trying to use a lot of different symbols at that point, and that card in particular has a lot of alchemy associated with it. My first version had a headless angel wearing one piece of shoulder armor that had a male face and one piece that had a female face. And it just never popped. Then this idea came to me of a hermaphrodite, of being not genderless but genderful, and what I ended up with was a much simpler design than the original but one that I was much happier with.

The Wheel was another one. That one took a really long time, and when it was done I was upset because I didn’t think it looked like it had taken a long time. A lot of times I’ll have a design where I spend a long time trying to draw it the first time, and then I kind of trash that and draw something really quickly and it will end up being way more successful than the one I put so much thought into. The overly-structured first one is what allows me to create the simpler second one. I sometimes need to spend that time making the first one overly-complicated so that I can get to what the design really is.

DID YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO ANY OF THE CARDS CHANGE AS A RESULT OF HAVING TO ILLUSTRATE THEM?

Yes, it did. The High Priestess. When I first started learning the cards and having readings done, I had a different relationship to her. I saw her as the perfect woman. There was a lot of objectification on my part. Some of that was a need to mature and just grow up, and it required a change in approach and understanding. And it was hard to capture that. I wanted there to still be some of that initial feeling I had about her, so in the card she’s a naked figure, she’s barely covered by a snake and some leaves. But at the same time she’s also completely unapproachable. You’re not going to get to know too much about her.

ellis high priestessDID YOU WORRY ABOUT THE DECK BEING TOO MUCH LIKE PREVIOUS DECKS?

When I started making my deck I was aware of maybe four other decks. I had no idea there were so many. In many ways I like working in a bubble, because I don’t want to be too influenced by other stuff that’s going on. Any artist hates it when they show you something and yor response is, “Oh, this looks like this thing crossed with this other thing.” Because then you think to yourself, oh, great, so I’m more of a blender than a creator. I’m an artistic margarita achine. That’s fantastic.

I got my first reading from the Aquarian Tarot deck. I really love that deck. I love how David Palladini uses color, and I love how the deck inspires your imagination. The Rider Waite is a beautiful deck, but it never inspired me in the same way, I think because it’s so solid, whereas the Aquarian deck is very fluid. When I started to design my deck, I wanted it to be like that, not in the way it looked, but to see what he saw as an artist. I wanted for someone to look at what I made and for it to start a story going in their head, to prompt them to start thinking about what was going on in their life. So it’s not that I used another deck as something to check mine against in terms of what it looked like or what was on the cards, but I wanted my deck to inspire readers the way I had been inspired by the Aquarian deck. It was a kind of self-check. If you don’t know me and don’t have to tell me it’s good because you’re my friend, is it still good?

ellis 5 of cupsWhen you’re making a deck, you have to pay heed to the fixed meanings, but at some point you have to bring it to life with your version of it, so you can’t be overly concerned that you’ve got to get the symbol of Mercury on this card, or that you’ve got to put this particular animal on this particular card. There can be this feeling of, I want to create something new, but I don’t want to break with tradition at all, and that can force everything into a fixed system.

BY FOCUSING LESS ON WHAT THE CARDS ARE SUPPOSED TO MEAN AND MORE ON WHAT THEY MEAN TO YOU?

That’s when you start cookin’. Especially if the person you’re doing the reading for has been inspired in the same way to participate in the conversation. That’s when a really good reading happens, versus if you’re just sort of numbly reciting the meanings to people. You know, I can tell you what the Hierophant means traditionally, but it’s what it means to you that matters, and it’s what it means to me that matters. There are so many Hierophant cards where he’s portrayed as a pope, for example, but I wasn’t raised Catholic, and the concept of a pope didn’t mean much to me. So I couldn’t create a Hierophant card that was a pope figure because I didn’t get that. It had to be something that I understood and related to.

AND YET YOUR DECK DOESN’T STRAY TOO FAR FROM THE TRADITIONAL MEANINGS. IT WILL STILL BE FAMILIAR TO ANYONE WITH A BASIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE TAROT.

ellis 6 of pentaclesThe fixed meanings are kind of the nails on the wall that you hang the pictures from. But your own personal experiences form the pictures themselves. Unless it made absolute sense, I tried not to have the same thing going on in each card that had been done over and over before. I didn’t want to feel that I was just redecorating a room or just dressing a familiar character in a different costume. I wanted to do a little bit more than that. My approach was that I have my own philosophy on what the cards mean and what’s going on, and if that went along with an existing philosophy, great. No one in this world believes anything in exactly the same way as someone else, so when you see a deck, what you should be seeing is the artist’s interpretation of the processes that the cards represent.

For example, the Pentacles are often interpreted as representing money. For me, though, they’re more about resources—time, energy, opportunity. Money can be a measurement of all those things, but it was important to me when creating the Pentacle cards that it not be solely about riches in the sense of money.

The reason I bring up the Pentacles specifically is because the 6 and 8 are cards where I definitely departed from the traditional interpretations. The 6 is often portrayed as a man with a scale, and sometimes he’s giving money to beggars, but for me the 6 was an abundant tree and the people were able to harvest everything they needed from it while the tree remained healthy. I felt that was a better way to illustrate what the 6 means to me.

With the 8, that card often represents what looks like what I call a manufacturing situation. I’m very fond of the I Ching, and the I Ching often speaks of the importance of getting from point A to B, then B to C, then C to D instead of focusing on getting right from A to D. I see the 8 of Pentacles as representing that concept. You’ve gone really far, but you’ve done it by making those small steps, by making a bridge one step at a time instead of just going, “And now there’s a bridge.”

ellis 8 of pentaclesIT’S INTERESTING THAT YOU MENTION THAT CARD, BECAUSE THE FIRST FEW TIMES I LOOKED THROUGH THE DECK I STOPPED AT THE 8 OF PENTACLES AND THOUGHT, THIS ISN’T REGISTERING TO ME THE WAY IT USUALLY DOES.

At that point in the story I created for that suit, there’s a town that has been able to use its technology and its understanding of itself to expand outward. To me the meaning of the 8 of Pentacles is a little deeper than, say, someone flipping eight burgers. And the 6 is less about the development of a healthy individual than it is about the development of a heathy community, because the individual is just a temporarily-severed part of the community anyway.

DID YOU HAVE A STORY FOR EACH SUIT BEFORE YOU STARTED, OR DID IT UNFOLD AS YOU WORKED ON THEM?

It sort of unfolded the way that it unfolded. I knew that I was saying something about transformation in each suit, but each one was its own type of transformation. For instance, I knew that the story of the Swords moved from conflict to understanding. The King of Swords has the sword on his lap because he doesn’t swing it around all the time. If he has to, he’ll take you out with the thing, but he knows better because he’s lost an eye in the process of becoming who he is. So I knew the basic story of each suit, but the specific story came after the art was completed. I hadn’t written a companion book at that point, so I would set all the cards out from Ace to Ten and write the story looking at the cards.

ellis king of swordsWERE YOU EVER SURPRISED BY THE STORY?

I was surprised that I had managed to pull it off, actually. I was working on a graphic novel before I started the tarot deck, and I found that my greatest weakness was the storytelling. My ability as a writer is not as developed as my ability as a visual artist, so to get a story out is painful. It’s something I’m tackling again now, and having completed the deck makes me feel that now I can do anything.

DID YOU DO ONE SUIT AT A TIME, OR DID YOU SKIP AROUND?

Well, I like drawing girls. So the very first day working on the Minor Arcana, I decided to work on the queens. I picked the Queen of Swords. I felt like, she’s the sexiest, most exciting queen, so how can she not hold my attention? This was around the time I was beginning to quit drinking, so this was all part of the alchemical process for my own life. I did the Queen of Rods next, then the Queen of Cups, and finished with the Queen of Pentacles. From there I continued with that pattern, where I would do a Sword, then a Rod, then a Cup, and then a Pentacle. I think next I did the Knights, then the Pages. Then I started with the Aces and went up to the Tens. I finished with the Kings. I felt that the Queens were the mothers who gave birth to the suits, or elements, and that each element then went through this process until it reached a point where it was sitting in understanding, which was represented by the King. So the design process was also part of the story process.

THAT DESIGN PROCESS ALSO MIRRORS THE WAY THE COMPANION GUIDE IS WRITTEN, WITH THE FOUR CARDS OF EACH NUMBER BEING GROUPED TOGETHER. IT’S A REALLY EFFECTIVE WAY OF APPROACHING THE DECK.

ellis page of cupsI thought that was extremely important. Mysticism can be used as a beautiful aesthetic or a horrible tool for bamboozling people. I think that there are a lot of people who don’t want other people to learn how to use the tarot as a tool for bettering themselves, because it benefits them to keep people blindly seeking to have their fortunes told. When I order the cards and say ”All the Aces are this kind of energy” or “All the Twos are this kind of energy,” I’m doing that because I want people to recognize the patterns that are going on within themselves and, if they’re reading for other people, within those people. I knew it would be some time before I got a true companion book done. I’m still working on that. I want the deck to be out for a while and for people to have had experience with it before I put that out. I’ve gotten some incredible feedback from people that have shown me things I didn’t even realize was in the cards. So I’m letting other sets of eyes look at the deck before I create a companion for it. I don’t want to sell people their own watch, as it were. I think it’s better if people figure out on their own what some of this stuff means.

A LOT OF PEOPLE, WHEN THEY HEAR THAT ART HAS BEEN CREATED USING ANY KIND OF COMPUTER, HAVE A NEGATIVE REACTION. DO YOU ENCOUNTER THAT?

The reason for that is that the computer has resulted in a lot of bad artwork. But it was natural for me. I had been using the computer to make art for a very long time before I started the deck. I do have a hand-drawing style, and I draw by hand in my sketchbooks, but using the computer allows me to create shapes in a way that my hand-drawing doesn’t. But yes, I’m very familiar with the response I get when I tell people that I’m working on art on the computer and they make that face. When people hear “computer-generated” they get the idea that the computer drew it, like you just hit the “draw gargoyle” button and it drew a gargoyle, or you hit Command+D and it drew a dog.

Iellis 6 of pentaclesSN’T THAT HOW IT WORKS? YOU JUST SAY, “COMPUTER, MAKE ME A TAROT DECK”?

I think that option is coming out in the next version of Photoshop. There’s going to be a filter that will turn your image into a tarot deck.

SO THIS WAS DONE PRIMARILY IN ILLUSTRATOR?

I worked for a large-format print shop for about eight years, and while I was there I learned Illustrator. I almost never used it for anything I was supposed to be working on. It was my version of doodling in the margins. I also made a lot of posters for bands, so by the time I started the deck, it really was like using a pencil for me. So I did the initial design in Illustrator, then brought them into Photoshop to add textures.

IS THIS STYLE COMMON TO YOUR OTHER WORK, OR DID YOU DEVELOP IT SPECIFICALLY FOR THE DECK?

My style changed while I was doing the deck. When I first started, it was a little less streamlined. And I would normally draw whites in people’s eyes. But you’ll notice that there are no whites in the eyes in the finished deck. That’s because I was used to working in a larger print size. The cards were all done at 11 x 17 poster size. But when I shrunk them down to card size, it was difficult for me to enjoy the image because there was so much going on that in a smaller size it was unattractive. You’ll see decks out there like this, where you know they were created at a larger size and then shrunk down, which makes them difficult or even impossible to easily read from. I learned to add less minutia to the characters and be more deliberate with what I put in. And that has changed my overall style as a result. The thing I’m working on now reflects that.

THERE’S ALMOST A 70’S AESTHETIC TO IT.

ellis 3 of rodsWell, I am a child of the 80’s, and children of the 80’s spent a lot of time in Half Price Books, which had a lot of stuff from the 70’s in it, so a lot of the art I saw growing up did look that way, and it definitely has influenced my style. That aesthetic really appeals to me. I love bright colors. I respond emotionally to colors very quickly. They trigger something in me, so for me it was part of the emotion of the deck to have the colors be something you respond to. Part of the success of the art in the 70’s is that there was a rainbowiness to it, not in the sense that it contained all the colors of a rainbow, but that there was contrast between things, different bands of color. As for the flatness of it, I wanted to create something that was flat but at the same time had dimension to it.

A big influence on me was the covers for the Lord of the Rings series done by Barbara Remington. She worked with a lot of color. I grew up with those covers, and to me they were THE covers. They really added a lot of fantasy to the story, and while reading the stories my mind painted pictures in her style. The bird in the story was the bird from the cover, for instance.

WHEN I LOOK ellis 8 of swordsAT A NEW DECK, I OFTEN LOOK CLOSELY AT SPECIFIC CARDS THAT I THINK TELL YOU A LOT ABOUT THE ARTIST’S APPROACH. ONE OF THOSE IS THE 8 OF SWORDS, AND WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THAT CARD IN YOUR DECK IS HOW PEACEFUL THE WOMAN APPEARS.

Personally, I think the 8 of Swords is a double-edged card. Of course all the swords are, but a lot of people miss the fact that sometimes you have to create a prison out of your mind. Sometimes you have to ground yourself, and sometimes we have to create that kind of prison out of our own thoughts in order to keep ourselves out of trouble for a little bit. It’s not always a bad situation. It definitely can be about getting in your own way, but it can also be a pathway to peace.

ANOTHER CARD I ALWAYS LOOK AT WHEN EVALUATING A DECK IS THE DEVIL, WHICH HAPPENS TO BE MY FAVORITE, AND I LOVE YOUR DEVIL.

Thank you. I don’t know if you noticed, but the same characters on that card appear in the Lovers, Temperance, and the Devil cards, representing different stages of an alchemical process. I thought it would be funny to have the girl, whose hair is blue in the Lovers and the Temperance cards, dye it blonde for the Devil card. She’s gone from having this beautiful blue hair to having a bleach job.

ellis devilI ALSO LIKE HOW THE DEVIL MIRRORS THE MAGICIAN WITH HIS MULTIPLE ARMS.

I thought that because the devil is kind of a he/she figure, he needed to be a mixture of the Magician and the High Priestess. Now that the Fool has learned all of these different tricks, at this point in his journey he needs to face temptation and figure out what he’s going to do with all of these things he’s learned. I had a really fun conversation with Ashley when I was working on that card. I asked him, “What color do you think the Devil’s nipples are?” He thought that they would be black, but I decided on gold.

TELL ME ABOUT THE 9 OF CUPS. TO ME IT’S PROBABLY THE MOST JOYFUL CARD IN THE DECK.

ellis 9 of cupsYou know that song by DJ Kool “Let Me Clear My Throat” that has Biz Markie on it? That’s actually what inspired me while I was drawing that card. With that card I just saw fat and happy. This guy does not give a damn what anybody thinks of him. He’s the 8 of Cups who was totally over everything so he jumped into the water and spent some time down in the subconscious, and when he splashed back up he realized that he already has everything he needs. And that’s what allows him to have all the love on the 10 of Cups, because he’s not trying to complete himself with somebody else, both people are already complete and now can enjoy one another. In a lot of decks the 9 is a chubby man at a banquet table, and I didn’t want to draw that. Also, I love the Hotei Buddha, and I wanted to have him in my deck somewhere. So there he is with all the baby seahorses. When I read for people and that card pops up, I know they need to hear that they can be happy when they’re alone. They don’t have to find someone else to complete themselves.

ASHLEY REFUSED TO TEACH YOU TAROT UNTIL YOU PROMISED NOT TO USE IT TO READ YOUR OWN CARDS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PEOPLE USING YOUR DECK TO READ FOR THEMSELVES?

I think that anyone can use the deck the way that they want to use it. I understand why Ashley made me promise not to read my own cards, because there is a definitely slippery slope where you can go off on a trip against yourself. It can be too easy for you to decide, “Oh, this just means this, and I can ignore that for right now,” or something to that effect. I do pull daily cards for myself. I think it’s an important learning tool. But as far as doing a six-month or a year reading, I think it’s better to have another brain involved. The cards have a sense of humor, and I find that if you try to do a reading for yourself, they’re often going to give you a Zen koan that’s going to lead you back to yourself.

DO YOU USE YOUR OWN DECK FOR READING FOR OTHER PEOPLE?

I do use it. At first I thought that that might be another ego trip thing, and that I shouldn’t do it. But enough people told me, “You’re probably the person who understands these cards the best. It would be stupid to not use them.” I don’t use it exclusively, although it is the one I primarily use when doing readings for clients.

DO YOUellis 8 of rods THINK YOUR DECK WORKS IN A WAY THAT’S DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DECKS
I probably have a pretty big bias about that because I drew all of it. For me it works because I know what I was trying to say when I drew the cards, so when they come up I have that to work with. I wanted to create a deck that worked in a way where when you looked at it you didn’t really need to get a booklet out to know what’s going on. I know it’s reassuring to do that, to check the meaning, but it was my hope that with my deck you could look at the cards and kind of get the idea what’s going on. I just wanted to create a deck that didn’t make people feel that they were light years away from understanding what the cards meant. Even as a tarot reader, I try to get my clients to a point where they don’t need me for guidance all the time. In fact, I hope that they never need me for guidance, and that they just use their time with me to hear themselves. And I wanted to create a deck that could facilitate that.

WILL YOU DO ANOTHER DECK?

I have dreams about different versions. I’ll be looking through the deck in dreams, and there will be a different version of the card. Or it will be something that I didn’t even think about. I had a dream the other night where I was looking at the Hanged Man card, and it featured the same rabbit figure from the card but he was walking with the cross and carrying it upside down. My subconscious still creates tarot decks from time to time. But I’m working on a graphic novel now, and I don’t know that I will create another deck in the future. If I do, it will be after this one has been out for a long enough time that whatever deck I do is not just a remix of this one.

The New York Tarot: An Interview with Giani Siri

Scan 2
One of the description cards from the New York Tarot.

The New York Tarot
Created and photographed by Giani Siri
Self-published in 1987 in an edition of around 1000

Giani Siri’s New York Tarot is unique for several reasons. Along with Bea Nettles’s Mountain Dream Tarot (issued in 1975), it is one of the first examples of a photographic tarot. It is also a love song to New York City and its people, capturing life in 1970’s/1980’s New York in a way that is instantly recognizable to anyone who lived in the city during that time. The images are powerful, combining tarot symbolism with everyday life to reflect the magic that permeates any city, but particularly a thriving city like New York. Recognizable figures make appearances in the cards (among others, well-known pagan personality Margot Adler is the High Priestess, sci-fi author Samuel Delany is the Hanging Man, and bon vivant Quentin Crisp is Strength) alongside familiar New York touchstones (Who else but the Statue of Liberty would play the part of the Empress?), creating a deck that connects on multiple universal levels while also functioning as a tribute to a specific time and place.

hanging manThe 93-card deck also plays with form, incorporating 12 zodiac cards as well as substituting a Child card for the Page in each suit and adding a Dame (essentially a female Knight) to the court. In addition, the Major Arcana features some variations on the traditional lineup, with the Hierophant becoming the Psychopomp, the Chariot becoming Transport, and the World and Resurrection (Judgment) cards swapping places.

The origins of the New York Tarot are as fascinating as the deck itself, and I was enormously honored to speak with Giani Siri about its history and about her thoughts on how the cards work.

HOW WERE YOU INSPIRED TO CREATE THE DECK?

queen of cupsA friend, Amy Sefton, who eventually became the Queen of Cups in the deck, introduced me to the Morgan’s Tarot deck. At the time, I was working for a rock band called Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, which later became the Major Thinkers. Both of the front men are still practicing musicians. Larry Kirwan is in Black 47, and Pierce Turner is a solo performer. Back then—in the mid-70’s—they would do these regular gigs at a bar in the Village called the Bells of Hell, and Amy Sefton and her husband introduced me to them. I fell in love with the band, and I became part of the volunteer roadie crew. At the same time, I was working as a hotline counselor at a shelter for battered women.

I would go with the band to a venue, often a bar that I didn’t know, where I didn’t know anyone, in a neighborhood I had never been in, and we would unload the equipment and I would babysit the equipment while the guys went out to eat dinner. So I would be stuck in a bar where I didn’t know anybody, and I learned very quickly that if I pulled out that deck, the Morgan’s Tarot, and did a reading for myself for my own entertainment, pretty soon people would come up to me and we’d have this conversation: Are those tarot cards? Yes. Do you do readings? Yes. Do you charge money? No. And I would end up doing readings for random strangers.

What I discovered was that very often I was answering the same kinds of questions that I was answering for panicked people who called me on the hotline. I came to view tarot reading as a kind of folk psychotherapy.

Anyway, I was involved with this rock band. Very involved. I call it my first magical working group. I would go to every show, and there was this collection of us that followed the band around. There would also be observances at various times of the year, like at Aleister Crowley’s birthday, Rose Kelly Crowley’s birthday, solstices, equinoxes. The group was called, unofficially, Star Group 1. And it seemed to me that there were people in the group who embodied tarot characters. So I had the idea to photograph everybody for a tarot deck called the Star Group 1 Tarot.

transportBut then the Bells of Hell closed, the band moved on to a different venue, people sort of scattered. So the idea was in the back of my mind for a very long time, but I didn’t do anything with it. I moved on and became a stagehand for the off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy. One night, after cleanup–and I was assisted by, shall we say, herbals when this occurred–I had a moment where the thought occurred to me of how I could do the 10 of Wands card.

Between having the idea for the Star Group 1 Tarot and becoming a stagehand, I had been collecting decks. I had collected a huge number of decks, and in one of them the 10 of Wands had a woman tied to a stake, being burned at the stake. I felt that that really hit on something, and that night at the theater I had this moment where I envisioned the 10 of Wands as some horrible kids in Washington Square Park coming after a gay guy with baseball bats. And then I realized, “Wait a minute. This isn’t the Star Group 1 tarot. What is this?” Then I literally had a hallucination of a neon sign that said the New York Tarot. Over the course of three days, all the images–almost all the images–came to me. I wrote note after note after note. This person doing this. This place. These people standing this way. I saw exactly what the images would be. It was like storyboarding a movie. It was a very powerful spiritual experience, and I could not turn my back on it.

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR THE DECK TO COME TOGETHER?

dame of wandsI spent the next 10 years talking people into posing for me to create these images I had written down. Often what happened was that things fell into my lap in really strange, synchronous ways. A good example is the Dame of Wands card. What I wanted for that card was a woman with a baseball bat. I had known a lady who was a semiprofessional soft pitch softball player. One day I ran into her and said, “I’m ready to take your picture now, of you in your softball outfit.” And she said, “Oh, no. I’m not into that anymore. I’m into figure skating now.”

So I was disappointed. But later that day–by the way, I was a bike messenger while I was doing a lot of this, which gave me a tremendous amount of free time to find locations to shoot–I went into a delicatessen that I went into very often for my lunch, to get a bagel. This was in the early 1980’s. This crazy guy came in while I was in there, made strange noises and gestures, and then left. I was at the checkout counter talking to the lady behind the counter, and I said, “Wow, you must have to deal with a lot of crazies.” And she said, “Let me show you how I deal with crazies.” And she reached beneath the counter and she pulled out a baseball bat. And that is her in the card. Her and her bat.

I found many images happened like that. Sometimes I would struggle. There were images I really wanted to get. For instance, I knew there was a sign somewhere in New York that had a ship and the word Excelsior with a sun above it, and I wanted that for the Sun card. I knew it existed, but for some reason I couldn’t find it. Then one day I was making a delivery and it was July and it was hot and I asked the guy where I was making the delivery if I could please have a drink of water. He said okay, and when I went into his kitchen it had a view out into an air shaft, as many apartments of a certain age in New York do, and he had hung a sculpture of a sun outside his window. To me that said more about the Sun as it relates to New York than any of my previous ideas had, so I used that for the card.

10 of wandsWHY IS THE 10 OF WANDS THAT ENDED UP IN THE DECK NOT THE IMAGE YOU INITIALLY HAD FOR IT?

I had some experiences creating some of the cards where I realized that if I create these images, I’m actually bringing this down on people’s heads. I had experiences doing some of the cards with nastier images where the people in those photographs had crap happen to them. I did everything I could to try to keep people protected from those things, but I came to see that I had to be very, very careful about the images I created.

Also, in the times when I tried to stage the 10 of Wands, I realized that given the technology I had back then, I couldn’t stage it and get all that I wanted in it into one image.

CAN YOU TALK A BIT ABOUT THE UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCES PEOPLE HAD?

5 of swordsMostly people had these experiences before I took the images. I would talk to people who I felt embodied the images, and often I would find out that they had had, or were having, experiences that reflected what I felt the cards meant. The woman who is in the 3 of Swords, for instance, was really going through what you see her going through in that card. I just asked her to get very much into what she was feeling when I took that picture. So in many cases the people who were my models were already going through those things beforehand.

But there was one card–the 5 of Swords–that very much affected how I saw what I was doing and made me change what I was doing. Very shortly after we shot that, all of us who were involved in that shoot experienced things related to it. The person playing the police officer had been arrested prior to that. Then both I and the person playing the man being arrested had very, very bad encounters with the police, him shortly after posing for the picture and me shortly after processing the film. I just couldn’t ignore that. I thought, I’m doing something in this city and I seem to be invoking some things here, and I need to be very careful about what I’m doing. I was very careful after that, and we did safe spaces and banishing or grounding out where needed. And there were some cards where I decided not to use people in the photos at all, like in the 10 of Swords.

10 of swordsDID YOU ALSO FIND THAT PEOPLE WHO POSED FOR THE MORE POSITIVE CARDS FOUND THEIR LIVES BEING AFFECTED IN POSITIVE WAYS?

Yes, Some people felt that it brought good things into their lives.

WHAT CAMERA DID YOU USE FOR THE PROJECT?

I used an itty-bitty single lens Olympus. What I knew from my art background was that if I imposed restrictions on the tools I used, it would force me to do certain things and make things look a certain way. Having that structure was something that was going to help me create. And I did all my own processing and printing. Also, I shot a lot of photographs. For example, I shot two rolls of Quentin Crisp to get that one image on the Strength card.

FUNNY YOU MENTION HIM, AS THAT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE CARDS. ANYONE WHO WAS PART OF NEW YORK’S GAY SCENE KNEW HIM. HOW DID HIS INVOLVEMENT COME ABOUT?

ScanWhen I was a kid, I’d seen the PBS broadcast of The Naked Civil Servant. [The 1975 movie based on Crisp’s autobiography.] And I thought, “This is a wonderful person.” I ended up reading the book the movie was based on. While I was working for Torch Song Trilogy, he came and was in the audience. Later, when Torch Song moved on to Broadway, he had a show in the same theater. At that point I was working on the photographs for the deck, and I knew that I wanted him for the Strength card. He was an immigrant, he was honest, and he showed strength in a way that summarized everything that strength means to me. And also being strong as it applied to living in New York, because he was an out gay man. So one night I waited until his show was over, and I approached him. At that point I would ambush people I was interested in having pose for me and say, “This is what I’m doing.” And I would have this stack of photographs I had already decided to use on the cards and show them. That’s what I did with him. I said, “I’m doing this project, and I would very much like you to pose for the Strength card.” And he said, “Well, yes, we can do that.” He immediately said yes. He was incredibly gracious.

I ALSO FIND THE LOVERS CARD REALLY INTRIGUING. 

loversOriginally my thought was to have four people–two males and two females–for that card. But as had occurred with some of the other cards, something different happened. There was a woman named Bernadette who wanted to perform as part of an event for an arts organization I was part of. And there was a man named Bert who was also involved in this arts organization. Bernadette came to a meeting of the organization, and when she and Bert were in the same room I realized that they were male and female images of each other. I was friends with both of them, and they both knew about this project I was working on, and I asked them if they would pose for me. They’re both somewhat androgynous, and what’s interesting is that I’ve shown the card to straight guys who immediately assume it’s two guys.

THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT AT FIRST TOO. BUT WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT IT’S NOT, IT BECOMES EVEN MORE POWERFUL.

One thing I have to say is that I give credit to all my models. 125 people volunteered to pose for me, and the images would not be what they are if those people were not who they were and were not able to feel for me and be for me in front of the camera. I cannot say enough good things about the people who posed for me, because they were not by and large professional models. They were just being who they were, and they were able to do that in front of a camera.

I KNO2 of pentaclesW THEY’RE ALL SPECIAL TO YOU, BUT DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE CARD?
All of the earliest cards mean a lot because they opened doors for me. The 2 of Pentacles was the very first one I printed. It made people smile.

ARE THERE ANY CARDS YOU FEEL DIDN’T COME OUT QUITE AS YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED?

I would have liked the contrast to be better in some, like the Magician. But the computers to fix things didn’t exist back then. I hope some day to digitize each image and fix them up.

WHY DID YOU ADD CARDS LIKE THE CHILD AND DAME?

If you look at one of the oldest decks, the Visconti Sforza, you will find, I think, a male and female page, as well as a male and female knight. Also, as a feminist of my era, I wanted there to be a female knight. Having studied many different decks, I knew that I wasn’t doing anything new by adding these cards, I was actually being traditional. The idea of having the zodiac in there was also not unusual.child of cups

YOU MADE SOME OTHER CHANGES TO THE DECK, LIKE SWAPPING THE POSITIONS OF THE WORLD AND JUDGMENT (CALLED RESURRECTION IN THIS DECK). WHY?

When I play tested them with people, and let other people who were not into tarot cards arrange them, that’s how they arranged them. Also remember, the tarot images are pre-Copernicus, and we live in a post-Copernicus world. The way the cards were arranged before is based on pre-Copernian thought about how the universe is set up.

The set we have that we call the Major Arcana is also fairly arbitrary. If you look at the oldest decks, they don’t necessarily look like that. They’re set in stone now, but that’s only because they’ve survived an editing process over time.

The number of cards in a deck, for instance, isn’t necessarily anything mystical or magical. It has to do with how a printer lays out blocks of images in the most efficient manner for the sheets of paper that were available for use at that time. Once I learned these things, it freed me up to do the deck in a way that I felt would be modern and useful.

As I said, I wanted the deck to be therapeutic. I wanted to make a deck that was not occult–there are hidden meanings in many of the images, but I wanted something that somebody who was not familiar with the occult meanings could look at it and go, “I get it.” The same way you would look at a newspaper photograph and go, “I get it.” Because I really love newspaper photographs. A really skilled newspaper photographer can sum up a total story with one picture, and get lots of complex emotions. And my more successful images are the ones where I’ve tried to do that.

What I aimed for was reflecting what the Waite deck did. Because I think the Waite deck did a very, very good job of taking the images away from playing cards to being cards that were really much more psychologically functional.

SPEAKING OF HOW THE CARDS FUNCTION, HOW AND WHY DO YOU THINK THE TAROT WORKS?

With the exception of shallow people who are bored, most people come to divination when they they are having trouble making a decision. They’re in a situation that they want resolved. Somewhere in their minds they have everything they need to reach a decision. However, this information isn’t available to them.

Scan 1
The card back for the New York Tarot.

I believe that people’s subconscious minds are very good at reading and interpreting people within seconds. Additionally, our unconscious is able to perceive meaning in images in fractions of seconds.
Think of film going at 24 frames per second. The conscious mind can identify an image shown for only 4 frames, 1/6th of a second. But experiments where people are hooked up to stress monitors to detect unconscious responses has shown that our unconscious mind can recognize images displayed for under 1/6th of a second. The technological ancestor of moving pictures and film frames is the flip book: peeling through pages of successive images to to form a moving picture. It is the exact same set of movements that we use when we cut a deck in half and riffle-shuffle the cards together. The deck is effectively a flip-book, a hand-held movie. I believe the questioner’s unconscious mind—the repository of the information that’s blocked—sees images that speak to their condition as they handle the cards, particularly if they use their non-dominant hand and they stack the deck.

I believe the reader reads both the cards and the questioner, and may further stack the deck when they handle the cards. In a good reading, the unconscious minds of both parties cooperate to help people reach resolutions. The cards help both people put into words, and understand, what their unconscious minds have already processed.