Expressive Range in Tarot Decks

I collect Tarot decks, and I’ve been meaning for a while to write about why. Even with a fairly standardized set of cards and suits, Tarot decks demonstrate how a procedural system can be focused on particular domains of meaning and types of significance.

The cards may be dealt randomly, but the card names, images, suits, and interpretive booklets create a space in which certain meanings can be expressed and other types of meanings cannot (or can be expressed only in a veiled and oblique way). This is the expressive range of the procedural system.

The Tarot decks I find most interesting are the ones that go beyond minor re-arting/re-skinning and instead significantly rethink or revise the expressive range of the Tarot, inflecting their decks towards particular problems or meanings — often via conceptual blending between the original Tarot elements and the new theme domain. For instance:


Urban Tarot, Robin Scott. This is my favorite deck, grounded in the iconography of New York City. The images are dense and detailed, providing plenty to think about and read. Most of the cards, not just the arcana, have human figures on them, and many of those that do not are associated with specific landmarks. The Moon is the crescent formed by a displaced manhole cover; the Wheel of Fortune is a ferris wheel from Coney Island, desolate and abandoned. The Tower is — inevitably — the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.

There’s a lot here about being a human in a society — or withdrawn from a society — and about how we regard justice, celebrity, wealth and poverty. I especially connect with the Aeon from this deck, which shows a woman visiting the memorial at Ellis Island.

At the same time, it’s very personal, with narratives about the card models often forming part of the reading. In this deck you’ll find public defender Verena Powell as Queen of Wands, or the artist’s own grandmother as Queen of Disks. The human reality of these individuals is inspiring — or disquieting, as in the case of the seductive Knight of Cups.

Robin Scott spent many years on this deck, and that shows in the evolution of style from somewhat more stylized and blocky cards like the Fool or the Knight of Souls to the bright realism of Satiety (10 of Cups) or the painterly quality of Art. Arguably that makes the deck less coherent, in some abstract sense, but I like having this evidence of growth and personal change built into the deck.

But I think what I like best about Urban Tarot is the diversity of mood and attitude it contains. Some Tarot decks are predominantly upbeat or predominantly grim; some focus on a small range of human experience or human problems. Urban Tarot encompasses a wider range of human possibility, the dark and the joyful, the healthy and the sick, the personal and the communal.


collectivetarot.jpegThe Collective Tarot is a “collaboratively created, radically-politicked, queerly-revisioned” deck. Its suits are bottles, bones, feathers, and keys — organic and discardable objects, a trash aesthetic, rather than coins and wands and swords. In place of pages and knights, queens and kings, we get seekers and apprentices, artists and mentors — suggesting a hierarchical progression that focuses on experience and obligation to give back to the community, rather than simple dominance.

The colors are often earth-toned and muddy, the line drawings intentionally harsh. The Seven of Bones is a card that just shows seven teeth falling, white on a black background, the embodiment of that common anxiety dream. The Hanged Man is here called Intermission, a man in chains hanging from the ceiling above a stage, while the audience looks on. Justice is supplanted by Accountability.

This is a good deck for thinking about questions like: when is it time to speak and when to be silent? How do we proceed, personally and in community, when we know that the system that surrounds us is broken? What is our balance of safety and truth?


slowhollerThe Slow Holler deck (Branches, Stones, Knives, Vessels / Student, Traveler, Architect, Visionary) is primarily by queer and/or southern artists. As with Collective Tarot, there are different creators for different cards, but unified by a color scheme of black and red, white and gold. Some cards are intricately dense, some are florid.

To me it feels like a somewhat safer version of the Collective Tarot, with fewer startling images and readings, and a stronger dash of emotional pragmatism. But that’s maybe a bit unfair — there are some truly weird moments in this deck. The Two of Branches is a rib cage that turns into a honeycomb at the bottom of the image, with trees growing up through the matrix — a symbol, says the book, of how our new creative energies often come from past loss, death, or decay.


stretchtarotThe Stretch Tarot is a mixed-media tarot deck. The suits and face card names haven’t been changed up, and the accompanying booklet is pretty brief and minimalist, so it feels less dramatically like a re-conception than some of the other decks here. The media in question are mostly 19th and early 20th-century photographs, paintings, and drawings (including some anatomical drawings): an update on Rider-Waite imagery perhaps, but still working with very much historical iconography.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a tinge of mockery in the way these pictures are deployed: the Ten of Cups, Satiety, depicts a very old-school mother and father, each with a fluffily gowned baby on one knee. The Emperor is a painting of Napoleon, but with the head of a deer.

Creation, the Ace of Wands, is at once phallic and gory. At the bottom of the image is Adam from the Sistine Chapel, with a rod placed in such a way that the casual viewer could be excused for thinking Adam extremely well-endowed. Around the rod are dribbles of wax, and the underlying texture looks like  sutured patchwork of skins. So what are we seeing here — the creation of humankind by God, natural reproduction, or some Frankensteinian act? Maybe all of the above.

But at other points, it feels like the images are selected on the basis of some rather outworn and undesirable stereotypes. Guidance is a native American man in headdress, and this feels like a Magical Native trope in a deck with majority white imagery. There are a few other people of color pictured — but that includes three Asian women as Cunning, which again feels like an uninventive choice.

So at its most interesting, this deck stacks together images in a way that calls out both positive and negative aspects of the concept in question. Not all of the cards do that much work, though, and some represent or reproduce an ideology I don’t share.


steampunktarotSteampunk Tarot, Barbara Moore and Aly Fell. At times a little cute or soft-edged for my tastes overall, lush and velvety and materially seductive but sometimes a bit toothless. This is not a deck that’s likely to disquiet you or call you out, and even the Tower here is a magician’s laboratory building that looks like it’s just experiencing a mildly out-of-control pyrotechnic display. The Wheel of Fortune is an interlocked set of gears with symbols, a Llull-esque vision of procedural meaning.

Still, thematically this one covers territory I haven’t seen explored by many other decks. It focuses on design, creation, and building; on the success or failure of complex and challenging projects. It’s also full of images of female artisans and engineers. The Devil is an out-of-control automaton, with a bit of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice implication.

I got this one during my work on Versu.



The Wooden Tarot (Blooms/Bones/Plumes/Stones, Page/Knight/Queen/King/God; standard arcana plus one Happy Squirrel Card). Dreamy and strange, this is a nature-inspired deck with no images of humans, only of plants, fungi and animals — and in some cases of chimerical hybrid creatures, like a femur that’s sprouting mushrooms, or a dog with a sunflower instead of a head, or chrysanthemum-like flower with eyeballs in every petal. It hits the mystical and the disturbing. Many of the animal faces sport a third eye.

Here again there’s no book, so the interpretation depends on the images themselves, and whatever Tarot-reading information you bring to the deck in the first place. Sometimes the nature-based interpretations largely agree with card interpretations found elsewhere — for instance, the High Priestess as a whale under the phases of the moon, or the Hermit as a bear under the mountains.

In other places, the nature-based imagery puts a new spin on the traditional interpretation. The Hanged Man here becomes a hanging bat — but a bat head-down is a bat in its natural position. Death is an owl with a mouse in its beak, part of the food cycle. The Tower as a lightning-blasted tree discards the concept of hubris and overreach from the original card, and (as I read it) refigures the lightning blast as something that just happens to large trees sometimes, a quirk of nature that can’t be avoided and for which no one should be blamed. Where some of the other decks above encourage the reader to consider the personal and communal accountability for bad outcomes, this deck seems to contextualize misfortunes as part of a life cycle of mixed good and bad.

I’d also say there’s less range of meaning with this deck than with some of the others. Cards within a given suit are pretty similar to each other in this deck — all the Bones cards are different configurations of crystals and antlers, for instance — and this makes it feel consistent, at the expense of illustrating the nuances of particular number/suit combinations.


Other mentions, though I don’t own these decks (or, in the digital cases, it’s not possible to own them per se):

  • Dry Erase Tarot is a Tumblr site that posts readings for which the artist creates new, connected images for the cards.
  • Marilyn Roxie’s Generative Tarot Reader is a Twine project that remixes Tarot card descriptions with crowd-sourced descriptors — so you’re seeing pieces of what assorted survey-takers thought the images might represent.
  • Black Power Tarot is a set of major arcana only which casts important African American figures on the cards.
  • Dust II Onyx by Courtney Alexander explores Black identity and the Black diaspora.
  • Ghetto Tarot illustrates card concepts with photography of Haitian scenes.
  • Currently on Kickstarter, the Ancient Epinal Tarot is designed for use in magic routines rather than Tarot readings, and has marked backs; the Threadbare Tarot is decorated with curious drifting scraps of cloth. The Luminous Void Tarot is all in watercolor. The Charles Dickens Tarot has cards like “Yarmouth” and is illustrated with images related to his life and work. There’s a steady stream of these through Kickstarter and other creative crowdfunding sites.


Some of the most effective Tarot re-envisionings I’ve seen come from people or groups who are at a disadvantage in the current political and social systems, and who are reimagining a whole vocabulary to better discuss the issues they need to talk about. (See also politically-inflected conlangs like Láadan.)

Rewriting and re-arting the Tarot is a way of inscribing a worldview. It’s also a way of acknowledging influences in one’s life, reusing and repurposing existing images and concepts.


More on this blog about Tarot and related concepts:

For more on the concept of expressive range:


7 thoughts on “Expressive Range in Tarot Decks”

  1. I’ve long thought that Tarot cards were enthralling precisely because the way they work seems to rely on our cognitive disposition towards narrative pattern recognition. A cerebral way to say “I think they show how important stories are to us at a fundamental level, and how important they are to understanding our own lives.” Cool to see this in light of that. I only own the Universal Tarot and the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, but now I can’t help but think about expanding the collection. I see interesting sets of tarot cards really do help to question preconceptions about the way the cards interact.

  2. Hello! Maybe you already know about this (in case just ignore this post), but if you don’t, then you should absolutely check “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” (“Il castello dei destini incrociati”) by Italo Calvino, one of the best (and more experimental) Italian writers of the past century. It is an experiment of procedural narrative, in which he spreads a deck of Tarots in a particular pattern and then creates stories. And the stories themselves cross with each other as the card patterns cross.It was closely followed by “The Tavern of Crossed Destinies”, in which he repeats the experiment using a different deck. These appeared in 1969 end 1973 respectively, and it was very ahead of its time (at least here in Italy). At the same time, it was typically Calvino, a real innovator and a wonderful storyteller, just look at the metanarrative of “If on a winter’s night a traveler”, for example… …but I’m going off topic. If you like tarot cards, just check “The castle..”!!!

  3. Nice stuff!
    I do not collect tarot decks although I own three :) The common ones, a Spanish one, and the Egyptian one, plus one so special that I’m not sure if you know it: The Decktet.

    Just in case you don’t know it, and for the audience, I will explain a little what’s special about it:

    The Decktet was conceived as a system for playing board games, but at the same time designed to be a Tarot-like deck with a cohesive theme and style.

    “The Decktet is a deck of cards with suits, ranks, and named images. It is structurally unlike ordinary poker and tarot decks, meaning that you can do different things with it.”

    Alas, it has six suits instead of the common four (suns, moons, weaves, knots, leaves, and wyverns), providing great combinations for new kind of play within the card games ecosystem. Each picture in each card could represent an individual (or role), an event, and a place. Even some cards can have both traits, for instance, The market is a place and an event at the same time.

    It is a solid system, a novel deck well played with almost 100 games designed for it. Sadly just a very little percentage of that uses the meanings of the cards as part of the gameplay (probably none of them). But you can use it as an alternative deck for some Norwegian roleplaying games like Within the whale belly, Archipelago or Itras By. You know, in those games you can change the deck for another that supplies a good range of roles, places, and events (like the card game Once upon a time), to get a different style and ambient for the played universe. Well, default Within the whale belly cards go for a “Tales of the sea” flavor, Once upon a time can change the game to a fairy tales story, then The Decktet has a great renaissance ambiance, focused on merchants, properties, windfalls, exploration, soldiers, diplomats, etc, but also in a world where there’s still magic and mystery. Indeed some popular games for the system rely on the flavor of the deck to provide a proper ambiance: managing properties, controlling a dock and the goods that come in and out, etc.

    Another great thing about the deck is that is very well documented. There’s plenty of articles by the author, and even a book about its creation and philosophy, also with the tarot meanings of each card.

    I love the Decktet as you can see :)

    One last special feature of the deck. It is an asymmetric one. Each card could be read face up or face down, each one giving a different aspect of the same element (as with other tarot decks).


  4. What a wonderful collection! The only “drawback” is that I would be afraid to use such works of art to play actual card games !

  5. I like the Stretch tarot deck; it looks dramatic to me with the interesting use of old pictures. Reminded me of Murder of crows deck in some way.

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