A New Tarot Deck Celebrates Bay Area Queer, Burlesque and Alt Culture
A blindfolded burlesque performer strikes a pose before the Golden Gate bridge.Â A San Jose knife thrower is pinned to a target by one of his own swords. A proud Aztec woman sits astride a cheetah, headdress on, incense in hand. Theyâre all real people from around the Bay Areaâand now theyâre all cards in Melina Alexa Ramirezâs new tarot deck.
Ramirez has spent the last 14 months painstakingly designing and drawing the 78 cards, before passing them to her creative partner, Eric Ipsen, for inking. As the resident artist for, and occasional performer with, San Joseâs monthly Circus of Sin burlesque and variety show, Ramirez wanted the deck to honor the artists who lost their stages during the pandemic. Specifically, those who are âproud of their queerness, unapologetically nerdy [or] give a middle finger to oppressive morality and norms.â
The resulting illustrations are a vibrant presentation of burlesque and drag performers, musicians, dancers, DJs and other creatives from around the Bay Area. One of Ramirezâs favorites is the Five of Wands. âThis image of Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado holding her daughterâs hand, as theyâre wearing their Aztec dance regalia, is just so sweet,â she says. âIt really captures the arts and culture I experienced growing up in San Jose.â
Ramirez, 31, and Ipsen, 47âa freelance cinematographer and illustrator from Redwood Cityâfirst met on Valentineâs Day in 2017. Circus of Sin had asked Ipsen to film a performance that night, and he soon became a regular at the monthly shows; he and Ramirez kept running into each other at mutual friendsâ parties. âIt was at one of these parties that I told him I was also an illustrator,â Ramirez recalls, âand he geeked out with me over art supplies and techniques.â
Ramirezâs concept began with a single portrait of a photographer friend as The Fool card, âjust for fun.â She was quickly commissioned to make five more cards for other people. At that point, her friend Donny Mirassou, a trans drag king, encouraged her to make a whole deck reflecting their community. And once COVID hit, Ramirez realized it was just the creative outlet she neededâparticularly as a means to take her mind off the stresses of her day job at a funeral home.
âI cannot tell you how many times I cried and worried about things that were out of my control as I was doing this project,â Ramirez tells KQED Arts. âBut seeing positive reactions to the work kept me going and seemed to make people happy. I didnât want to let anyone down. I was determined to finish what I started, even though it was really hard sometimes.â
More cards from the deck designed by Melina Alexa Ramirez. (Instagram / @spanishforocean)
At one point last summer, Ramirez was so consumed with the idea of her own mortality she made Ipsen, a freelance illustrator and cinematographer, promise to complete the deck if anything happened to her. âHe was the only person I could trust completely with this beast of a project,â she says.
âIt was early on, when there were still so many unknowns about the pandemic,â Ipsen says now. But Ramirezâs fear, he says, helped them develop a more efficient way of working. âDuring the early [days], our roles were a lot less defined. So I suggested Melina work ahead as much as possible, getting the basic concept sketches locked down while I handled the more mundane technical aspects like backgrounds and other details. I thought that would ensure some continuity in the event that I had to take over.â
Though each card was originally planned, painted and inked in black and white, Ramirez recently made the decision to digitally color the images. âOur dear friend Wednesday Hendrix specifically asked for a rainbow on her cardâthe Ten of Cupsâand I couldnât deprive her of that,â Ramirez says.
Melina Ramirez and Eric Ipsen included themselves in the tarot deck as the Eight of Pentacles and the Hermit. (Instagram / @spanishforocean)
âThe color just adds a whole new dimension to it,â Ipsen adds. âFor the most part, Melina has kept most of the finished colored images under wraps. I cannot wait until people get to see the final product though. I think they will legitimately be blown away.â
Ramirez and Ipsen are raising money to print the deck via Go Fund Me. They plan to have it available for purchase this summer.
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