In 1987, bike messenger Giani Siri self-published The New York Tarot, a 93-card deck with photos of New Yorkers and city scenes used as art for the traditional major and minor arcana characters. Largely unknown and never widely available, the deck is both a time capsule and a love letter to New York in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The sepia-toned images feature “NY’s resident alien” Quentin Crisp as Strength, pagan journalist Margot Adler as the High Priestess, Hugo-winning science fiction novelist Samuel Delany as the Hanged Man, and high-wire walker Philippe Petit as The Fool. There are also non-human icons: Lady Liberty is the Empress, the Unisphere is The World, the Moondance Diner is (what else?) the Moon. And there are the thoroughly unknown, untold people and corners of a New York more than three decades past. Giani herself is featured as the Queen of Swords.
Comments on the cards’ meanings are cryptic, far from the typical fortune-telling, future-sensing or Rorschach nature of the tarot. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the Empress’ commentary reads. “Out of the rat race and into the real world,” the Hermit signifies.
The deck has not commercially available since the closure of Dover’s Bell, Book & Candle shop. I first came upon it by accident, stumbling into a Facebook group run by Siri’s husband and the deck’s Prince of Cups, Robert Sirignano. The group is simultaneously an online reunion and a place for tarot interpretation. I reached out to Siri for an interview and a copy of the deck – the deck arrived in my mailbox two weeks later. Her story follows.
My very first magical working group was the people surrounding and the members of a rock band called Turner and Kirwan of Wexford – this was in the mid to late ‘70s and it was one of those weird little branch-offs of the arty punk scene going on in New York City. Their rock band would do a lot of observances of a polemic kind – Aleister Crowley stuff. The person who introduced me to that band was a young woman named Amy Sefton – she’s the Queen of Cups in the deck, the lady in the bathtub – and I was like, this is it! This is the band I want to follow. And so I became a volunteer roadie. At the same time I was working in a shelter for battered women.
As a volunteer roadie, I would find myself in corners of NYC and Long Island that I had never been to, wherever the band was playing, and because I was a total stranger I learned very quickly that if I pulled out my copy of the Morgan’s Tarot and did a reading for myself, pretty soon people would say, “Are those tarot cards?” and I would say yes, and “Do you do readings?” I would say yes, and “Do you charge money?” and I would say no.
I quickly found I was answering a lot of the same personal crisis that I was answering in the shelter for battered women. I came to see tarot cards as a kind of folk remedy, available to people before medication and psychology. I became more and more interested in the tarot, through the Morgan’s deck, and how it would speak to what people needed to hear at the time. I looked around at the band and all the people coming to these polemic rituals and I thought, we have all the people from the tarot here. We’ve got a Fool, we’ve got a Magician, we’ve got a High Priestess, we’ve got all these characters here. And it occurred to me, I could take photographs and it would be the Star Group One Tarot – that’s what we called ourselves, the people who came to the concerts.
I was not in the position where I had a darkroom or anything like that, but this was cooking up in the back of my head for a couple of years.
I hallucinated a neon sign that said The New York Tarot. Over the next three days, idea after idea came to me about what should be in those photographs. Many people, like Amy Sefton, were already there. All the other things that kind of downloaded over three to four days, it was a very powerful experience and it was one where I knew I couldn’t turn my back on this.
I spent the next five years talking people into volunteering to pose for me. This is before Photoshop; everything that was in it ever had to be done on the film or in the darkroom. What happened is, the city would sort of give me gifts. One of the gifts was I was looking for an image of Justice and I went into the building where the New York State Bar Association is. I walk in, and there’s a gift shop, and in the gift shop is a statue of Justice with a price tag hanging off it. Given what New York was like at the time, I was like, this is perfect.
Yes. Some people had good luck. I learned early that I had to be very, very careful. In some cases, when we did things, we were doing a kind of ceremonial magic. All my models, they were all actors, even if that was not their profession. I picked them because they, in a moment, could get into the character that I needed.
It has the ability to heal in a way that – nothing against standard medicine, antibiotics are great, rabbis, vaccinations, they are life savers, these things do have their place, but in some areas, particularly spiritual and psychological, it really does take reaching to your unconscious. That’s what I think good diviners can do. They can speak to a part of somebody’s mind that’s not rational but does have a belief system. Don’t walk under a ladder, step on a crack and break your mother’s back. What a good ritual and a good tarot reading or a very good astrologer can do is speak to those unconscious superstitions and comfort or change the mind of that unconscious part of us.
I knew both the art history of it and its origins in people, and so I sort of went on a mission to find out the art history of tarot cards. First of all, there is no indication that tarot cards or playing cards were used for divination prior to about the 1770s. Fortune telling with cards really doesn’t appear in the literature until the late 1700s. My personal belief is there were some charlatans in the French court in the late 1700s, before everyone started losing their heads in the French Revolution. One of the things that is recorded is, you had very, very wealthy people who were searching for amusements. The standard amusements started to get boring. Then two amusements occurred at the same time: One was messing around with the occult, and you also had people playing cards and gambling a lot. Their use for divination emerges from this decadent French court where there wasn’t much difference between making a fortune and losing a fortune, and I think the phrase “telling a fortune,” that’s where it comes from.
The idea of them being used for fortune telling is really not as old as people think.
This is like the third time around for me seeing this. People don’t recall that there was once a time when science fiction was very much a ghetto. I grew up with science fiction, reading it, and in the early ’70s – before the movie Star Wars came out – if I went to a job and I had a science fiction novel, people would look at me like I was reading pornogrophy. I’m gonna pull rank here: Neopaganism and modern Wicca sort of came out of [a group of neo fiction fans living in Inwood alongside Siri in the ’80s].
Then people realized they weren’t alone and there was a lot of networking being done. Then it became fashionable, and there was a little blip of tarot cards being available in supermarkets and the Necronomicon was a paperback and Simon was one of those people who was part of Star Group One. It was a ground zero for a lot of stuff. It was commercialized and then in— oh, when did goth become a thing?— the late ’90s, that was the next iteration of it becoming a thing. Now it’s happening again. My observation each time has been there will always be a certain percentage that get into this as a fashion statement.
I left New York after completing the deck because the venues that existed at that time were being bought up by investors and you see that now. Where there was a little dive bar with a place in the back where a band could play [which] is a Starbucks today. There’s still places in the outer boroughs where things are quite alive.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.