Tarot Cards That Put the 'Act' in Social Activism

By Nick Fouriezos


Because an ancient art form gets modern, real-life interpretations.

The Hanged Man. My favorite tarot card depicts a man bound, vulnerable and exposed, tied upside down amid a Christ-like persecution, and it begs to be interpreted as tragic. Yet, oddly, the morbid picture has always given me hope: that sacrifice, when chosen freely, can grant peace and certainty in a world of constant flux. While soothsayers and Ouija boards can feel akin to fortune cookies and sports bookies, tarot decks can encourage a fresh perspective. Plus, their illustrations are often strikingly beautiful. Tarot may have been originally conceived as a premedieval parlor game akin to Snakes and Ladders or bridge, but over time it has become an intuitive form of personal expression — and, thanks to the ’70s, social change. Here are just a few modern interpretations of the ancient form that ignite passion and inspire action.

The Ghetto Tarot

If Westerners know of Haiti at all, it’s often as that hurricane-torn nation whose core was shaken by a devastating earthquake in 2010. Most perceive the world’s “ghetto” as poor, hard, unequal and devastating. Yet Haitians are using their agency to claim and redefine the word, says Belgian photographer Alice Smeets, who was inspired to create a tarot deck from photos of locals based on their practice of “turning trash into art (i.e., a negative into a positive).” (See the slideshow above.) In the Ghetto Tarot, a Voodoo priest with a skull on a stick depicts Death, a man with a plastic crown and frayed jeans portrays princely Justice and a smiling ti gason (little man) holding a toy horse head symbolizes the Sun. Provocative and elegant, the cards remind us to read between headlines of poverty to see the richness of sincerity in the Haitian people. And a fully funded Indiegogo campaign — almost 45,000 euros and counting — means a book illustrating the deck will be available soon.

The Black Power Tarot

In the age of Black Lives Matter and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” it’s hard to come up with original expressions of those nonviolent protests that Martin Luther King Jr. once described from a Birmingham jail as carving “a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.” Count this deck as a welcome outlier in today’s civil rights movement, featuring historical figures like Malcolm X, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and Richard Pryor through 22 major arcana cards. King Khan, a Canadian rock ’n’ roller, gives tarot card readings while on tour and came up with the idea for a collection that spotlights famous Black people, a fitting response to the fact that traditional decks almost universally leave out people of color.

Queering the Tarot

The tarot is also known as “The Fool’s Journey,” the start of an adventure, as well as a metaphor for life. Interpreting it from a queer perspective bears its own highs and lows, Minneapolis tarot reader and feminist Cassandra Snow tells OZY, spanning “the coming out, the internalized queerphobia, what stepping into the dating world looks like or doesn’t look like, as well as safety concerns.” Progressive queer columnist Beth Maiden, from Manchester, England, collects user-submitted photos for a LGBTQ-friendly deck online. And Slow Holler, a Southern queer artist collective, wrapped up a $57,321 Kickstarter campaign to build one, in April. The upswing in tarot being linked to social justice causes can be attributed to the general rise of the Internet, says Snow, who writes a weekly online column called “Queering the Tarot.” She adds, “It’s been a miracle for bringing people together for causes they care about.”