The esoteric art of tarot has come into the light. In the past two years, it’s been the subject of trend pieces in The New York Times, The Guardian, and on BBC News, and captured the attention of artists like King Khan, Michael Eaton, and Alejandro Jodorowsky, Adam J. Kurtz, and Jesse Moynihan. You can snap up indie decks featuring everything from history-making women to planetary bodies to characters from Twin Peaks.
“You’d be surprised who has a tarot deck in their purse or briefcase,” says Linnea Gits, cofounder of the design studio Uusi. “It’s no longer in the closet. It’s right out on the coffee table.”
Gits and Uusi cofounder Peter Dunham are among the bounty of artists and creative studios propelling tarot to its current popularity. They’ve been creating fine-art tarot decks since 2015, after making a name for themselves with finely crafted playing-card decks in styles ranging from baroque to optic art to modernism, all funded on Kickstarter.
For their twelfth project, live now, they’re not just reinterpreting the storied canon of tarot — they’re designing a new sort of mystical tradition altogether. And it’s rooted in science.
One playing-card deck becomes six thanks to a community of collectors
Uusi’s seven-year run on Kickstarter started with a poker deck. They created the Blue Blood deck, which features hand-drawn depictions of monarchs and courtiers with intricate backstories, as a PR souvenir for a tequila brand; it was one of several designs that wound up being discarded. Still, they wanted it to see the light of day, so in 2012, they turned to a then-nascent crowdfunding site, hoping to raise $9,000 to print it.
“I launched [the campaign] on a trip to LA and thought nothing about it,” Gits recalls. “I was just hoping our friends and family and peers wouldn’t be too annoyed by our emails [about it].”
Far from ticking anyone off, pledges began pouring in from around the world; by the end of the campaign, Uusi had raised more than double their funding goal. “It was so magical and bizarre,” Gits says. “Then we were hooked.”
They decided to create five more decks, each experimenting with different art forms and techniques: a hand-painted deck that blended street art and baroque; an op art–inspired one hand-inked in a woodcut style; an earthy one inspired by pagan mythology and done in oil paint. “We love everyday objects that we can reinvent,” Gits says. “[The poker deck] breaks so many barriers: gender, age, sex, language… Anybody can play with a card deck.”
As their clout on Kickstarter grew, their campaigns attracted more and more support, often surpassing 1,000 backers. Their business evolved alongside it: Gits and Dunham began creating more work for their own studio instead of for outside brands and agencies. As they wrapped up their seventh campaign for the sixth deck in the series — they also ran one for a limited-edition reprint of the Blue Blood deck — they were already gearing up for their next phase: reimagining the illustrious iconography of tarot cards.
An arcane divination tool gets contemporary
What is it about tarot that so appeals to Gits and Dunham, and to thousands of collectors and enthusiasts worldwide?
“We [humans] need to know ourselves a whole lot better. The tarot is about deep introspection,” Gits suggests. “It has all the archetypes and structures that ring true to human nature. It’s expansive: It allows you to tell the story and put yourself in the story, which is what the best religions do. And it’s a great meditation tool for getting through the day — sometimes it’s just that. You need that thing you can grab on to, an answer or a suggestion for an answer.”
Dunham adds, “So much has been torn down, and inevitably, people still need something to believe in. People need some kind of spiritual construct. I think a lot of people are finding within the tarot something they can grab onto and use as a beacon to find that spirituality.”
“So much has been torn down, and inevitably, people still need something to believe in. People need some kind of spiritual construct. I think a lot of people are finding within the tarot something they can grab onto and use as a beacon to find that spirituality.”
Gits and Dunham designed their first tarot deck, a modernist take inspired by the Marseilles deck of the 1700s, in 2015 — just four short years ago, but eons in the timeline of tarot’s mainstreaming. “When we started, some of our peers were like, ‘What are you doing a tarot deck for?’” Gits says. But their oracular sense of tarot’s impending popularity bore out. There are now hundreds of decks on Kickstarter alone, and it’s become a mainstay of the wellness movement (for better or worse). It’s even caught the eye of MIT Libraries, which acquired Uusi’s work for their forthcoming collection of indie tarot decks.
“The tarot, the oracle [decks], they’re very fulfilling for us because they’re not disposable objects,” Dunham says. “They connect with people on a very deep level. That’s a great feeling, to be making something that isn’t just going to get tossed away someday.”
Mysticism meets hard science in the Materia Prima deck
Their new Materia Prima deck represents a shift — though not a tectonic one — for Uusi. It’s designed to be used like a tarot or oracle deck, as a tool to guide introspection and meaning-making. But it’s not rooted in an existing mystical tradition. Rather, it blends the supernatural with the scientific, depicting elements from the periodic table as figures that might appear in Greek and Roman mythology.
“A lot of the tarot is [about] introspection, and we feel like Materia Prima brings you out into the world,” Gits explains. “Let’s say you pulled Carbon. That’s a structural building block for all of life, so it’s your fundamentals. Look at the fundamentals of what you’re asking. Go to the root of it. How can you support what it is you want to do within yourself? What is the structure you need to create? Then, how is that going to ripple out into the world?”
Surrounded by accelerating political, social, and climatic crises, Gits and Dunham felt like a divination tool that draws our focus to the outside world was sorely needed.
“It’s great to have the esoteric content, but at a certain point, you want to exist in the world. You do exist in the world,” Gits says. “The periodic table is our world. This unbelievable combination of elements has generously and graciously formed the world we’re in, and us. We have to start looking at our world with our soul and connect to it in that way so we can treat it better and treat each other better.”
Is this alchemical mix of science and spirituality what we need to weather the current moment? We’re not clairvoyant — but some 600 backers (and counting) are willing to wager on it.