(Photo by M. H. McFerren)

Artist-designed tarot decks have become increasingly popular in recent years—and it’s no coincidence. “Politically, culturally and socially, we are in a very kind of crumbling-of-the-Roman-Empire situation right now,” said Fyodor Pavlov, the creator of one such deck. “And I think there is kind of a desperate search for meaning in the world.”  

Pavlov, an illustrator and tattoo artist, has been working on his own tarot deck for the past five years. His Kickstarter campaign attracted nearly 1,500 backers who pledged over $113,000 for this project. “It’s a little buckwild,” he said.

Not that Pavlov is entirely shocked by the project’s success. Tarot has such universal imagery of human experiences, “it’s one of those things that can go in and out of fashion but will never truly go out of style,” he said.

Pavlov’s deck puts a twist on the original Rider-Waite deck, created by Pamela Colman Smith more than a century ago. She painted the ‘The Lovers’ card with a male and a female figure clasping hands together— a symbol of union or togetherness, like reaching a higher state of self by being with another person or partnering with somebody. But in Fyodor Pavlov’s tarot deck, the two figures are trans. 

The Lovers. (Courtesy of Fyodor Pavlov)

Using pen, ink and watercolor as the primary media, Pavlov hand-painted each of the 78 cards with illustrations that evoke queer history and sexuality as well as his own experience as a queer immigrant. Growing up in Moscow, Pavlov translates a lot of his Russian heritage into his cards, especially ones in the Suit of Coins, which feature women wearing the traditional sarafan dresses. 

As for “The Lovers” card in the Major Arcana, Pavlov believes that there’s no reason for them to not be trans. “I don’t think it’s revolutionary in any capacity because trans people exist—I am one,” Pavlov said.  

Pavlov has also tried to incorporate imagery that’s relevant to the current political climate, as in the “Five of Coins” card. The card traditionally depicts a couple of poor folks outside of a church seeking refuge during hard times, whether it be financial or interpersonal hardship, or some sort of loss. The idea here is that the church offers solace, but Pavlov thinks that is no longer a universal concept. “A lot of people don’t have religious affiliation or they don’t look to the church as a force for good or a force for comfort,” he said. “But the idea of being shut out of somewhere, the idea of not being given the opportunities that you would like to have, is what’s at the core of the card.” 

So instead of drawing a church, Pavlov drew a wall with shut doors, with one of the coins rising up like the sun on the other side, which suggests that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Pavlov was working on this card around the time when the Mexican border wall was in the news and so he wanted to create an image that’s pertinent. “Whether or not that situation improves, I sincerely hope it does. I hope we all as a people work towards making it improve.” 

Five of Coins. (Courtesy of Fyodor Pavlov)

Having promoted this project for a long time before launching his crowdfunding campaign in February, Pavlov knows many queer people who are interested. A few esoteric shops have reached out and inquired about wholesale opportunities so there seems to be a wider appeal, for amateur and professional tarot readers, those who love to collect tarot or people who like Pavlov’s art.

But where do we draw the lines between helping people in trying times and capitalizing on their spirituality?

Pavlov believes that art is work and artists should be able to profit from it. “I think spirituality is very personal, but I don’t think it needs to be precious,” he said. “I don’t think there is a wrong way to practice it as long as it gives people comfort, helps them answer some questions and doesn’t hurt anyone or anything in the process.”