The Urban Tarot is an attempt to reimagine the meaning and images of the traditional tarot into a modern context. While the symbols of the tarot are usually full of ancient or medieval trappings, the ideas that they represent are eternal and have as much power today as they ever did. With that in mind, the set was designed to speak to a modern audience more directly – removing the layer of history that might make the images on the cards seem distant and alien to a contemporary viewer and at the same time remind them that there is as much magic to be found in the 21st century as there was in any centuries past.
The purpose of the tarot, as a tool, is to help people make sense of their lives and the choices they have before them. So it seems natural that we should expect the tarot to speak to us in a visual language that we find familiar. The set is being created with the strong belief that inspiration and purpose are not resources we must borrow from ages long dead, but treasures that we must seek within ourselves and learn to see in our own daily lives.
As the designer of the deck in progress, I should say that I am coming to the the tarot not from the perspective of a practiced reader, but as an artist and an enthusiast of the tarot. Illustration is, at its heart, the art of using images to communicate complicated ideas. There are few ideas as rich and powerful as those of the tarot, and so creating the deck has been one of my most fascinating challenges.
I’ve selected a few cards to talk about in a bit more depth.
I’m very happy with how this card worked out, because it fills one of the primary goals of the set so well – even if you have never seen a tarot deck before I think this image carries the feeling that the Devil card should give you. The Devil is sexy and inviting, but also dangerous. It describes a moment: when you consider indulging in something you know you should not in an environment that makes you feel uncomfortable. The Devil card is about being imprisoned by our own darker urges, something that should be very familiar to almost anyone in one form or another. Urged on by laziness, greed, lust, or hunger, who has not found themselves doing things over and over that we know we should not, that we are ashamed of but make no effort to quit? This card should be a wake up call, telling us to take a hard look at ourselves and ask if we’re really living the way we want to be. In terms of process, I used a school bathroom stall as reference for the background, and posed my model on a toilet in my apartment to take the photo. I asked him, literally, to open his fly a few inches and give me a look like he was impatiently waiting for me to service him, while I photographed him from a low angle on the floor. This is the only card in the set so far where I’ve used some hand-drawn elements in the graffiti on the walls – this was my way of subtly violating the realism of the space to give the image some more overt mystical elements.
The Princess of Swords
Princess of Swords
For the Court Cards of my set, I am particularly guided by the elementalism inherent in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot. And so the Princess of Swords is Earth in the context of Air, a brave and determined hero working within an intellectual context towards material ends. In order to translate each of the Court Cards into a modern context, I’ve tried to interpret that existent meaning into a specific occupation or archetype that has a relevance to a modern audience. And so my Princess of Swords is an environmental activist, leading a movement of words and ideas in order to inspire change in the material world – very literally aligned with the elements of Air and Earth. She is surrounded by winds of change, symbolized by the stacks of fliers that are blowing away all around her; she is toppling the established order of things. But at the same time she is herself rooted to the earth, and stable in her beliefs. She is armed with a bullhorn instead of a sword, and the sword that is the symbol of her suit instead takes the place of an inspirational banner on the front of the table. I imagined this card as representing a scene in a city park with one inspirational speaker speaking to the gathered crowd while standing on a folding table draped over with the logo of an environmentalist group. The inverted triangle with a line across it that appears behind the sword is a deliberate nod to the symbol for the element of Earth, and the same symbol, reversed, is implied in the design of the sword hilt I used throughout the suit to represent Air (if you look closely at the Prince of Swords, this comparison is made more plain). As one of the earlier cards I created, the style of this card is looser and more geometric than the later cards – in itself something of an homage to the paintings of Lady Freida Harris, but which I’ve slowly moved away from with later cards in the set.
The High Priestess
The High Priestess
The High Priestess is one of my favorite cards, because its meaning is sometimes hard for a modern audience to grasp. It’s about finding a way forward by being receptive and passive rather than active. Coming from an eastern, Taoist thinking, I find that people often have a hard time with seeing the value of acting inactively, of moving forward by stopping to rest and consider. The High Priestess goes deeper, seeking insight by dreaming and reflecting. To me, this was symbolized perfectly by the idea of taking a nice long bath, alone with your thoughts. What other time to do we allow ourselves in this century to really let ourselves wander? And yet, sometimes it’s in this unguided, receptive state that we are best in a position to understand deeper truths about ourselves. Instead of being clear, the water reflects a swirling, starry sky, representing the wandering journey that the Priestess takes within herself. The Priestess has a pendant around her neck, shaped like the moon-and-horns symbol of Isis, which appears on many versions of this card. There is an ornate embroidery pattern of a pomegranate on the bathmat in the card, which is a traditional element that speaks to me of Persephone’s journey. Persephone was taken into the underworld, but she returns to the surface regularly bringing renewal and wisdom. In the same way, the High Priestess card encourages us to go to places that may seem uncomfortable or unproductive within ourselves in order to make sense of our lives in new contexts. I particularly liked the way that the candle flames reflected against the tiles, making the space seem beautiful and sacred – it was there when I shot the reference for the card, and I made sure to pick up on it in the finished piece.
The Urban Tarot is currently seeking funding through Kickstarter. If you’d like see to the deck completed, please help support the project. The deadline for funding is April 19. 2012. For all of the cards that have been completed so far, or to see more of Robert’s work, go to http://RobertScottArt.com