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A New Tarot Deck Celebrates Bay Area Queer, Burlesque and Alt Culture

A blindfolded burlesque performer strikes a pose before the Golden Gate bridge. 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. They’re all real people from around the Bay Area—and now they’re all cards in Melina Alexa Ramirez’s 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 Jose’s 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 “proud of their queerness, unapologetically nerdy [or] give a middle finger to oppressive morality and norms.”

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 Ramirez’s favorites is the Five of Wands. “This image of Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado holding her daughter’s hand, as they’re wearing their Aztec dance regalia, is just so sweet,” she says. “It really captures the arts and culture I experienced growing up in San Jose.”

Ramirez, 31, and Ipsen, 47—a freelance cinematographer and illustrator from Redwood City—first met on Valentine’s 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 friends’ parties. “It was at one of these parties that I told him I was also an illustrator,” Ramirez recalls, “and he geeked out with me over art supplies and techniques.”

Ramirez’s concept began with a single portrait of a photographer friend as The Fool card, “just for fun.” 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 needed—particularly as a means to take her mind off the stresses of her day job at a funeral home.

“I cannot tell you how many times I cried and worried about things that were out of my control as I was doing this project,” Ramirez tells KQED Arts. “But seeing positive reactions to the work kept me going and seemed to make people happy. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I was determined to finish what I started, even though it was really hard sometimes.”

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. “He was the only person I could trust completely with this beast of a project,” she says.

“It was early on, when there were still so many unknowns about the pandemic,” Ipsen says now. But Ramirez’s fear, he says, helped them develop a more efficient way of working. “During 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.”

Though each card was originally planned, painted and inked in black and white, Ramirez recently made the decision to digitally color the images. “Our dear friend Wednesday Hendrix specifically asked for a rainbow on her card—the Ten of Cups—and I couldn’t deprive her of that,” Ramirez says.

Melina Ramirez and Eric Ipsen included themselves in the tarot deck as the Eight of Pentacles and the Hermit. (Instagram / @spanishforocean)

“The color just adds a whole new dimension to it,” Ipsen adds. “For 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.”

Ramirez and Ipsen are raising money to print the deck via Go Fund Me. They plan to have it available for purchase this summer.

Copyright 2021 KQED