Exploring the Starved City Tarot

I started following the artist Meagan Berlin on Instagram about six months ago. She had teased some photos of a deck she was working on called the Starved City Tarot, and I was curious to see how it would turn out. The deck is all finished now, Meagan was kind enough to send me a copy, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts, because I love this deck. Like, really love. 

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Monochromatic decks with simple illustrations are popular right now. So as someone who’s found herself becoming something of a deck collector, I’ve been looking around for one that I like. I’m difficult to please though, and sometimes this style of deck feels a bit surface-level. I often think of decks with simple illustrations as good for beginners, but not particularly useful for someone who already knows their stuff. The Starved City Tarot is different, though. It’s true that the illustrations are simple, but it’s also obvious that Meagan took great care with these images, so that the simplicity becomes dramatic, rather than boring. For example, the Devil card in this deck is illustrated by a single horizontal chain, running over the sides of the card. This image is a punch. It brings—front and center—these ideas about the Devil as an imprisoning figure. It forces us to face our addictions and their tendencies to creep into other parts of our lives. The images in this deck are ones that get straight to the point, to the root of meaning. There’s thoughtfulness and intention here.

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The deck itself is beautiful, and I love the artwork. But the thing I love most about it is that it's intentionally queer-friendly. Tarot is an old system, and like many old things, there are aspects of it that don’t always work well today. One of those aspects is the system’s tendency to lean heavily on the gender binary. For some people this isn’t a big deal, but for a lot of queer people it can be uncomfortable. And while it’s certainly possible to read traditional decks in a queer-friendly way (I’m thinking specifically of Cassandra Snow’s Queering the Tarot column on Little Red Tarot), that’s not always ideal. The Starved City Tarot manages to dismantle the gender binary inherent in traditional tarot decks without toppling the entire structure.    

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We see this mostly in the renaming of the court cards. (This renaming is becoming a popular thing with indie decks, and I’m here for all of it.) In this deck, the court cards are Pages, Knights, Advisors, and Protectors. I love this. Renaming the Queens and Kings as Advisors and Protectors allows the reader to focus on the action of the archetypes rather than their prescribed gender. And even the imagery of the court cards is ambiguous as regards gender. (This isn’t always the case. It’s difficult for even the most well-intentioned artists to move past the gendered nature of the court cards, even if the court cards are renamed in a more inclusive way.) Most of the court cards aren't even illustrated with people, which I appreciate. It makes it easier to get to the root of the meaning.

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Because the illustrations in the Starved City Tarot are so simple and often abstract, there aren’t a lot of actual people in the deck. But the bodies we do see are beautiful and diverse. Until recently, this kind of diversity was rare in tarot. This is another of traditional system’s shortcomings—if you look through the standard Rider-Waite deck, everyone is white. But the new decks being created these days are often much more inclusive, and the Starved City Tarot is no exception. It makes the people I read for more comfortable. (Hint: it’s easier to connect with a reading if the bodies in the cards look like yours.)

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My favorite card in this deck is the High Priestx, and I think it illustrates most of what I love about this deck. The image simply illustrates the root of this card's power, the High Priestx's ability to connect light and shadow, conscious and unconscious. And the gender is stripped away here. In general, I don’t particularly mind the High Priestess being a more feminine-coded card, but I also think it’s easy to fall into these old ideas about women being mysterious and intuitive, while men (like the Magician, the High Priestess’ match) are active and outward-focused. But at their roots, these archetypes have nothing to do with gender. And stripping away the gender stereotypes of the cards allows us to play with the archetypes in ways that are more fluid.

My only qualm with this deck is the card stock. It's thin and pretty flimsy. This is not a deal breaker for me (I'm fine just being tender with fragile-feeling decks like this one), but I'm mentioning it here because I know that card quality is important for a lot of people. There is a small guidebook included, created in partnership with Kelly Linsday and including a poem by Maks Zouboules which inspired the deck's name. I like the guidebook quite a bit—it digs into the cards' meanings without being overwhelming.

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To be perfectly honest, I have traditional decks that I love and use regularly. But also, I find that the older I get, the more queer I feel, and the more queer I feel, the more queer I want my decks to be. And while I love my trusty Rider-Waite, there’s something freeing about a deck that gives me room to explore beyond the borders of traditional tarot. I think that’s the real heart of the Starved City Tarot. So while I think this would be a great deck for beginners because of its simplicity, I also think there’s a lot here for seasoned readers as well. If you’re interested in the deck, you can follow Meagan on Instagram or purchase the Starved City Tarot on her website.