Aligning the Arts of Tarot and Tattooing

clown-by-Angel-Garcia

Fellow artists and friends Angel Garcia and Samantha Rehark together developed a project that dovetails tarot and tattoos based on a natural, conceptual similarity between the two practices: the act of trust.

A report by Monica Uszerowicz for Hyperallergic.

Last fall, during their residency at the Golden Dome School— an educational and curatorial platform focused on a shifting intersection of art, ecological stewardship, and metaphysics — the artists Angel Garcia and Samantha Rehark together developed a collaborative ritual. They made four quick sketches each day, starting early in the morning and ending at 3 am, the start of the Witching Hour. They would do this separately, meeting later to overlay two drawings from each set into a single artwork. The images would eventually become a deck of oracle cards (tarot-inspired cards used for divination and inspiration) and, in turn, tattoos: Querents could pull a single card from the deck, receive a reading, and have the image etched onto their body by both artists at once. Because no meaning was previously prescribed for the illustrations, the querent would determine its relevance during the reading, ascribing it to themselves.

Garcia, a multidisciplinary artist who’s been tattooing for five years, was keen to work with their friend Rehark — herself an interdisciplinary artist and a hand-poke tattooer — on a project dovetailing tarot and tattoos based on a natural, conceptual similarity between the two practices: the act of trust. There’s daring and implicit surrender in permanently illustrating the body. “Tattooing is magic and compassionate,” says Garcia, referring to the empathetic responsibility required of the artist who commits an idea to skin. Tarot readings are often equally vulnerable for the querent, who might reveal private concerns. They named the project the “Body Spells Deck,” as in a magic spell.

The tattoo industry has undergone a shift of late, with queer and femme tattooers now taking up more space — thanks in part to the ease of digitally self-promoting an art so patently visual. Like astrology and herbalism and other ancient modalities that have become regarded as esoterically “New Age,” tarot too has had a resurgence: You’ll find satiny patterns from Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble’s Motherpeace Deck— created in the 1970s — in Dior’s Resort 2018 collection, and on Instagram, the hashtag #tarotmemes is at the time of this writing linked to 10.7k posts. Even if they work adjacent to such trends, Rehark and Garcia, both of whom I’ve known for a long time (Rehark through an early iteration of the Golden Dome, and Garcia through our shared hometown), defer constantly to the cultural history of divination and communion with the beyond. Garcia, who is Cuban, cites the power of communicating with the ancestral realm that is specific to the tradition of spirituality in the Caribbean. Theirs is an approach both reverent and playful.

The tarot is technically a set of playing cards, its use documented as early as mid-15th century Europe. Studiers of the tarot feel it has roots broader and more ancient than that; there are comparative forms of poetic divination found globally. Each deck is commonly divided into two parts, called the Arcana: four suits of 14 cards each (ten Cups, Wands, Pentacles or Discs, and Swords, plus their four court cards) comprise the Minor Arcana; 22 trump suits of archetypes (the High Priestess, the Hermit) comprise the Major Arcana. The visually illustrative Major Arcana usually starts with the Fool (card zero) and ends at the World. In a reading, Minor Arcana cards might represent smaller-scale concerns, with Major Arcana indicating larger or more personal transformations. The Tarot de Marseilles, allegedly the first to be used for divination, inspired the iconic Rider-Waite deck, published in 1890 and designed by Arthur Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society. (Smith, a remarkable writer and artist whose name is absent from the deck’s title, is finally receiving criminally overdue recognition.) The cards’ significance tends to change with time, and today, avid users of the tarot can choose from a rainbow of decks whose imagery determines their canons.

Why are we all so obsessed with a world beyond the corporeal, and with tailoring its exigencies and mysteries to fit our lives? Perhaps in such a punitive world, it feels therapeutic to tap into something profoundly beyond it. As Garcia and Rehark worked on their drawings at the Golden Dome, they were touched by what felt like cosmic coincidences, finding unexpected synchronicity and shared patterns in their drawings,  visual confirmation that the ruminations of one were shared by the other. An unintentional result of not having the stamina to draw four times a day, they completed the project with just 22 cards — the same number as the Major Arcana.

The Body Spells Deck is utilized only when the two host nomadic sessions — the artists are both based in New York and travel often — inviting curious visitors to draw a card and receive a reading, and then a tattoo. The artists continue to make new cards, setting synchronous alarms during full and new moons and pausing to draw. When they meet up, the images are combined again, painted onto pale pink cardstock and hidden away. Until a querent pulls one, the cards are never publicly revealed; after it’s been tattooed, that card is retired. Like hermetic organizations preceding it, the Body Spells project is secretive. It’s a playful nod, too, to the tough-guy history of American tattooing — Garcia’s tattoo background is in the American Traditionalstyle — when passwords and hidden locations were compulsory.

This past January, a Body Spells event held at Yarrow Studio — a private tattoo studio in Brooklyn — had the feel of a Victorian parlor game, with its own clandestine mysticism. Guests received the address via Instagram DM in exchange for a description of their magical power. “We wanted to start the event off that way,” explains Rehark, “like: Feel good about this. Feel good about you, because that’s what this is ultimately about.”

The sign-in sheet filled up quickly. Garcia and Rehark spent ten hours reading and inking tattoos on seven people. Unaware of what each card looked like until they were pulled, querents discussed the nature of the image or how it made them feel, like interpreting a dream. “Sometimes we’ll talk about the image, or an aspect of the collaboration,” says Garcia. “It’s interesting how the practice itself — Body Spells — becomes its own entity, another person at the reading. Whatever the card is, whatever is unique about it, becomes present for that person. That’s really magical.”

One guest was rightfully nervous, expressing concern she’d hate the card she drew. Rehark and Garcia wanted to make sure that she had agency in the process, assuring the querent the image could be adjusted or completely reimagined to her liking. In the end, she pulled one she loved, felt moved by the reading, and placed the tattoo on the back of her arm, just beneath her elbow.

If magic is real — and I think it is — it might occur in the small-scale world-building that happens in a tarot reading, the connections between the iconography and the experiences of the querent. Good tarot readings are caring, foregrounding the inherent goodness and potential of the querent. They embody a transformative, empowering pleasure — like tattoos do, sometimes. They’re less about escapism from anguish and more about engagement with the self, or one’s community, with kindness and attentive reflection. That both tattoos and readings are received feels, in these settings, like a form of support. “Putting an illustration on somebody’s body,” Garcia tells me, “activates a superpower.”

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