In late 2019, San Jose artist Melina Alexa Ramirez created what she imagined as a one-off illustration based on a tarot card: local photographer Justin Brown rendered as the Fool.
Traditionally, the Fool depicts a debonair vagabond in a reverie. A lap dog nips at their heels, attempting to warn the unaware drifter they are poised to stroll off a cliff’s edge. Giving the symbology a decidedly San Jose twist, Ramirez drew Brown in a daydream, walking towards a hurtling light-rail car. Swapped out for the vagabond’s old-timey trappings are cargo shorts, a wallet chain and Chuck Taylors. In lieu of a bindlestiff, he shoulders a sledgehammer. A feline familiar paws at his tube socks.
For anyone who follows San Jose’s alternative nightlife online, Ramirez’s black-and-white show flyers are likely familiar.
Under the moniker Alexa Serenade, she serves as house illustrator and stage kitten for Circus of Sin, the monthly burlesque variety show at downtown’s Caravan Lounge. She has drawn Hello Sindi—the troupe’s tattooed, pin-up-style mascot—in myriad compromising-yet-whimsical scenarios. In one, a mallet-wielding Sindi confronts a sweat-covered, cowering piggy bank. In another, Hello Sindi travels to a distant planet via flying saucer. Donning a see-through space helmet, she reclines in a robot’s embrace; her opera-gloved limbs grip the robot’s ringed appendages.
Recently, Ramirez embarked on her own journey. The Fool card that began as a one-time project soon evolved into something much bigger: Bay Area Tarot, a 78-card tarot deck featuring a bevy of local faces and places. Though originally conceived on a whim, the story of the project and its creators resembles something much closer to fate.
The Fool's Journey
When drawn in a tarot reading, the Fool card portends a fresh journey. Despite inevitable dangers, you must trust where the universe is steering you. Though she didn’t know it, Ramirez was deep in the Fool zone when she finished her first card. Within weeks, the first known Covid death in the U.S. would occur right here in San Jose. Venues would soon shutter, and performers like the Circus of Sin troupe would lose access to their stages.
Ramirez describes Donny Mirassou, a Hollister-based drag and burlesque performer with 32 years worth of chops, as her “project pusher.” Upon admiring Ramirez’s spin on the Fool card, he encouraged her.
“This is a really fun idea,” Mirassou recalls saying after seeing Ramirez’s Fool card. “Have you thought about doing a full deck?”
At the time, the prospect of funding, researching and illustrating a full 78-card Tarot deck seemed daunting. But in the months following the lockdown, Mirassou kept tarot on Ramirez’s mind. First, he commissioned her to create a birthday gift for his brother—a punk-rock street performer—on the face of the Magician card. Next, he ordered another pair. The first depicts a horned, bat-winged version of himself on the Devil card. The second portrays his husband suspended upside-down in suspenders as the Hanged Man.
At the time, Mirassou was just getting over the first of two grueling bouts of Covid.
“The idea [for the tarot deck] came, and it was something I could do to help my friend even though I was so isolated and down for the count with post-Covid syndrome,” says Mirassou. “It gave me a little something to focus on, as I was sick and in the hospital, to watch the art coming through.”
Mirassou commends the network of care that has coalesced among members of the local drag and burlesque scene. “When I got out of the hospital, this was the community that stepped up to help take care of my husband and I,” Mirassou shares. “It was the drag and burlesque [performers], the sideshow geeks, the punks. Something I’ve discovered years and years ago is the LGBTQ community will look out for others and those adjacent to it. It comes from the concept of chosen family.”
He frames the Bay Area Tarot project as a welcome distraction for a small crew of artists from the anxiety, physical pain and loss of the pandemic.
“Once lockdown happened,” she explains, “it’s like, okay, well, we have no events to go to, no shows to assist at—might as well do it. That’s how the project came into being.”
Eric Ipsen describes his role in Bay Area Tarot as “mostly a technical enterprise.” It’s an appropriately cagey answer for someone depicted in the deck as the Hermit.
Ramirez calls Ipsen—an illustrator and filmmaker from Redwood City—her “drawing partner.”
“It was something the both of us needed, to just have an end goal in mind, a project to pursue while we waited this whole thing out,” she says.
To prepare each card for print, Ipsen used black ink to retrace Ramirez’s pencil drawings, adding definition and detail to the originals. “He has the patience that I lack,” Ramirez notes, lauding the precision Ipsen brings to his work. When faced with a loose sketch of the Golden Gate Bridge on the 4 of Pentacles card, for example, Ipsen says, “I took it upon myself to really look at the architecture and make it recognizable, even if it wasn’t in color.”
The project, by all accounts, was a mammoth undertaking. Tarot, as a discipline, has an intricate lineage, and Ramirez aimed to study the structure as she went.
The standard Tarot deck is split into two parts. There are the trump cards—aka the major arcana—composed of 22 archetypal figures and themes that a person encounters in life. Then there are 56 additional cards—aka the minor arcana—that are divided into four suits: wands, swords, pentacles and cups. Each suit contains 10 numbered cards and 4 court cards (page, knight, queen and king). Detailed illustrations atop each card offer scenes and symbols that tarot readers then interpret while divining.
Beyond learning the ropes of tarot, there were also logistics to consider.
To cover the costs of the project, Ramirez established a tiered system. For $50 to $70, artists and performers could secure their spot in the deck on a first-come, first-serve basis. As enthusiasm spread throughout Ramirez’s extended network, a mad dash ensued.
“It was kind of hectic,” she explains. “For the first couple of weeks, when everyone was rushing to hit me up and get a spot, I was sort of glued to my phone and computer.”
Some people inquired after specific cards or suits. Others requested IOUs for the price of admission. Some interested parties were total strangers who heard of the project through social media.
In May, Ramirez and Ipsen completed all 78 cards of the tarot deck.
“We sort of had some post-tarot-project blues after that,” she says. “We were just like, ‘Aw, it’s over but the world’s not open yet.’”
One positive effect of the shutdown: Circus of Sin increased its accessibility by going virtual. In doing so, it even drew the Hermit out of hiding. A regular attendee of the troupe’s shows in the before times, Ipsen now plays a participatory role.
“I actually became part of the crew,” he says. “I started running the camera and helping with the show once it went online.”
Tarot as Time Capsule
August marks one year since Ramirez posted the first completed tarot card on her Instagram feed. In that time, many local venues have reopened their doors. Drag kings and punk bands are returning to the stage. And yet, with the delta variant making the rounds, the specter of Covid still looms. In a tragic turn, fewer markers now dot the map of local performance spaces.
“The first month or two into Covid, we were hearing about famous venues shutting down, like the Stud and Slims,” says Ramirez. “I was just like, ‘Oh no, I need to capture this culture before it’s all gone.’”
Ramirez indulged her documentarian impulses in the deck—scattered throughout are local landmarks and objects she calls “Bay Area easter eggs.” The 2 of Pentacles, for example, displays the Ritz nightclub on South First Street. A pair of all-caps phrases grace the marquee. On the right, “Save Our Stage”; on the left, a doleful Joni Mitchell line: “Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s Gone.” Any San Jose locals who cruised past the shuttered gray theatre during lockdown would have spied these precise messages.
Fifty years ago, passersby would have curved past the same building’s lavender contours. It was then the Pussycat II, a pornographic movie theater. In 1973, until the vice squad seized the film reels, patrons stood in long queues to glimpse a short-lived premiere of Deep Throat.
“A friend described it as sort of a time capsule,” Ramirez notes of her project.
Shuffling through the deck, one can also find the Mexican Heritage Plaza, the Western Appliance sign, and the Center for Performing Arts.
“Who I hope this deck will be for, or who will find it, will be people who just want to remember what it was like,” Ramirez says. “Who’s to say what San Jose or what the Bay Area is going to look like in ten years or so?”
The sense that our landscape is undergoing rapid revision is palpable in downtown and beyond. In May, the city council made a unanimous decision to greenlight Google’s Downtown West project. Another vote in late June led to the approval of a development that will ultimately displace generations of vendors from the site of the San Jose Flea Market. In an ecosystem where upheaval is the norm, local artists scramble to get by.
But it’s not just the places of 2020 that the deck memorializes, it’s also living humans who Ramirez describes as “just all sorts of different characters.” Many of the people she depicts are those who she met through the Bay Area’s drag and burlesque scene—as a contributor to Circus of Sin and an audience member at other showcases. She lauds the scene’s inclusive spaces for welcoming diverse performers to “express themselves unabashedly without restriction [and] just sort of be outrageous.”
One of her favorite cards—the 9 of Cups—portrays the Caravan’s bartender, Rachel Warner, at work.
“I felt like it was a proper tribute to something I had sort of taken for granted before,” she reflects.
Accompanying the 78-card deck will be a booklet featuring biographical information about each featured artist. Wenzdai, the photographer featured on the 8 of Swords card, pitched in on the typesetting.
“Even if you didn’t know anything about San Jose, once you open up this deck and start using the cards, you’re going to learn about these people,” she says. “And if at any point in time you end up meeting them, I can easily see people being like ‘Oh my god, not to be a weirdo, but you popped up on my 7 of Cups.’”
Ramirez’s attention to detail helps bring out the personalities of the people and places in the deck. The traditional backdrop of the 8 of Swords card, for example, has been replaced with Pet’s Rest Cemetery and Crematory in Colma, a landscape Wenzdai once captured on a metal plate via a nineteenth-century photography technique called tin-typing. While the figure in the traditional deck sports plain garb, Ramirez adorns Wenzdai with the tools of her trade.
“I have this large format camera that has this big black bow on it because I have a hard time pulling the lens out,” Wenzdai says. “On my tarot card, in the drawing of me holding my camera, she actually included the bow. It was just the smallest of details that made me really, really excited.”
Blueprint and Beyond
Lately, tarot has been gaining in popularity.
“There’s so many new decks now,” remarks Mitchell Winter, a Santa-Cruz-based drag performer who appears on the 2 of Cups card. “It’s probably the most popular it’s been since its inception.”
Winter identifies one century-old deck in particular—the Rider-Waite-Smith version—as influential to those that followed.
First published in 1909, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck is today upheld as the standard, with more than 100 million copies in circulation in over 20 countries. (I myself bought my first-ever Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck from the occult aisle of the bustling Barnes and Noble on Stevens Creek Boulevard.)
“[The Rider-Waite-Smith deck] is the blueprint through which we understand a lot of other decks,” Winter says. “New decks will tweak it entirely but still, there’s some element, you can tell, that it’s referencing this deck.”
Like Ramirez and Ipsen, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck’s illustrator, Pamela Colman Smith, created the cards in collaboration and on commission. As a twentysomething, she held a stint with a traveling performance troupe—helmed by the author Bram Stoker, of Dracula fame—as a costume and stage designer. She adapted folktales from her childhood home of Jamaica and enacted them via toy theatre.
Like Ramirez, Smith illustrated promotional materials for stage shows. Today’s academics speculate that she based the familiar characters who embellish her tarot cards on her own social set, many of whom were performers. Several characters possess a hint of gender expansiveness if only you look for it. One biographer suggests she may have adopted a fluid or nonbinary identity if she had lived in an era with such terminology available to her.
In co-designing the 2 of Cups with Ramirez, Winter aimed to retain some of the traditional details of the card. For example, a caduceus—two snakes twining around a winged staff, often used in the U.S. as an icon for medicine—hovers on the card’s face. Winter’s drag name is Hermetica Lee Shields—a pun on “hermetically sealed”—and so it seemed to him a fitting symbol to carry over.
Other aspects, he determined, needed to catch up with the times.
In Colman Smith’s rendering, a man and a woman—often interpreted as “soulmates”—make persistent eye contact over a pair of outheld chalices. Winter asked Ramirez to instead draw him as both figures on the card: bearded in a button-down as Mitchell on the left, and dolled-up in a gown as Hermetica on the right.
“To me, it’s about self-love,” Mitchell explains, “turning the traditional concept on its head and representing something a little more personal: not necessarily romantic love, but more about spirit’s transformation of the self. In the representation of that card, I am my own partner.”
At the crux of this project is a call to support living artists. Pamela Colman Smith, the artist for the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith deck, died penniless and in obscurity—a fate that Ramirez sees as cautionary. When posting her own illustrations or boosting others’ artwork, she invokes the hashtag #SupportLivingArtists.
“Why should we have to wait until after artists are dead to appreciate them? You need to support living artists,” she urges. “You need to appreciate their work now so it can thrive and reach its full potential. You don’t lose anything by supporting an artist.”
The project, she says, was a “love letter to the whole scene.”
“I started this deck because I missed seeing my friends so much—that’s really the heart of it.”
In making her love letter public and shareable via Instagram, Ramirez raised local artists’ and performers’ visibility, creating space for new connections and community-building amongst those featured on the cards—and anyone who engages with their images.
“I think the deck did a really good job of illustrating the multiplicity, the variety that we have here,” says Winter. “Melina would post a new tarot card, and I’d be like, I don’t know who that is! I’m going to look them up.”
When asked about the deck’s divinatory potential, Ramirez highlights intimacy.
“The act of getting your cards read by someone facilitates deep, meaningful conversations,” she states. Old friends might reconnect via the cards and acquaintances might deepen their bonds.
Winter describes tarot as “inherently a community-based practice.”
“When I’m doing a reading with others,” he explains, “it’s more collaborative. They see things I don’t see, or bring things to the fore that I ignored, so it is definitely a meeting point for people.”
And in the event that the pandemic worsens, and we are made to endure a 2021 that is as isolating as 2020, tarot can serve as a much-needed balm.
“It’s about communicating,” Wenzdai notes. “All of last year, the only thing to do was message each other online or by cell phone, because everybody was trying to be safe. You couldn’t actually see anybody in person. But when you’re reading a tarot deck, you’re reaching out to get insight, creating this communication with the cards.”
For more info, visit BayAreaTarot.com