tarot + tattoo - belief = appropriation?
August 25, 2021 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Would it be appropriating or offensive to get a tattoo in the style of a tarot card when I am not interested in tarot readings or a believer in divination? Would this be akin to intruding on another's religion, culture, or language?

I have been considering getting a tattoo incorporating several symbols I associate with a loved grandparent (who was even less interested in tarot than I am), with their name where the card name would be. I have an idea for the arrangement of symbols, and framing it like a tarot card feels aesthetically beautiful to me. The nod to tarot nudges it toward a spiritual connection, which I certainly feel toward this grandparent. They were and are a model for me in my life.

My main interest in tarot cards is their aesthetic, historical, and literary significance. I love the compressed and ambiguous symbology of the major arcana, and how graphic and recognizable the style is, both of which seem to me great characteristics for a tattoo. (Rider-Waite deck in particular.) I also admire them as a window into occult history that I find interesting to read about, as cool and vaguely witchy things to look at, and as a device or organizing principle in various books I've loved (e.g., Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or Little, Big). But I don't look to tarot cards (or anything) for any divinatory power.

While I'm excited about this idea, I really don't want to appropriate anyone's deeply held beliefs. I've gotten other tattoos before, in styles that are loosely based on 18th- and 19th-century Western European decorative arts--not "tribal," Japanese, etc., styles I have no cultural connection to.

If you are someone for whom tarot readings are significant, would you be offended or gobsmacked to see a tarot knockoff tattoo? Would it look dumb or disrespectful to you and your community?
posted by BespokePuppet to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This sounds good to me. It sounds like you have as good & respectful of a take as anyone could possibly have. The tarot is just a book that a lot of people find value & significance in and you're allowed to do that too in your own way.
posted by bleep at 2:19 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My main interest in tarot cards is their aesthetic, historical, and literary significance.

There are plenty of tarot enthusiasts for whom this is the only draw to tarot. It's an art form. I strongly doubt anyone will have a problem with it, given how popular tarot cards are for tattoo inspiration in general.
posted by fight or flight at 2:20 PM on August 25, 2021 [11 favorites]

Tarot is not my main divination system, but as a diviner I would be inclined take your side against anyone calling you out for tattooing original art in a Rider-Waite style to honor an ancestor. From my POV the common-ground consensus on divination systems is not "I deeply believe that this connects me with a source of knowledge outside of myself" but "my experience has shown that this works for me to clear the path toward sources of knowledge within myself." The tarot deck itself was initially a gaming deck & the major arcana are just the trump cards for those games.
posted by xueexueg at 2:22 PM on August 25, 2021 [10 favorites]

No one is going to be offended, but some people are going to think you read the cards and might ask for a reading. Or they might want to strike up a conversation about the meaning of said card ("yes, the Knight of Wands means so much to me as well, it was during that reading when I...", etc.) If you can handle that, you're good to go.
posted by kingdead at 2:27 PM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

No, it's not appropriation. Tarot card designs are thoroughly a part of popular Western culture.
posted by heatherlogan at 2:30 PM on August 25, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: original art in a Rider-Waite style

Though you should at least read the Wikipedia bio of Pamela Coleman Smith, who created the original art for the [Smith-]Rider-Waite deck under commission from Waite. :)
posted by heatherlogan at 2:33 PM on August 25, 2021 [9 favorites]

No, it's not appropriation. Not everyone who likes Tarot believes in divination. There's even a subreddit called secular tarot for those who love Tarot but not the mysticism. I love Tarot and I'm not even 100% sure what my core beliefs about it are. I wouldn't take offence. You have a legitimate and genuine interest in the imagery anyway and so you likely know more about the cards than some Tarot readers do!
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 2:39 PM on August 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Your mileage may vary on this, but "appropriation" being a bad thing seems (from my point of view) a matter of taking something out of another group's control, and normalizing it in a way which isn't subject to their approval. This narrative really depends on some sort of power or influence differential: the appropriator has to be in some position of greater influence than the group they're appropriating from, which is why the alarm bell typically rings when mainstream culture (with its intense media boost) or members of the mainstream cultural groups, picks up on (and changes for palatabillity) the signifiers of some disenfranchised or minority culture. But that doesn't seem like what you're doing here; for one thing, Tarot is a pretty damn big tent which has a lot of flex in what's a "proper" aesthetic for it. There are classical specific forms (e.g. the Rider-Waite designs), but those are (a) already fully from and of mainstream European mainstream culture, and (b) not the be-all and end-all of tarot design. Cards which have the structure of a tarot deck but not the Rider-Waite aesthetic are extremely common, and aren't regarded as appropriative. Likewise, designs which mimic the Rider-Waite aesthetic but for non-Tarot-card purposes, which is closer to what you're asking about, are drawing form a pretty standard tradition: AFAICT, Pamela Smith's artistic designs were done in pretty conventional British 19th-century illustration styles.

The tl;dr is that nobody "owns" tarot, as a concept or as an aesthetic; there's no specific group of culturally tarot-associated people who will get mad that you're adapting signifiers that belong to them. The closest I can come up with to a specific cultural group which is typically regarded as having an association with tarot (or more broadly with divination) is the Roma, many of whom regard that association as a negative and stereotypical one and which they're just as happy not to have regarded as somehow "theirs".
posted by jackbishop at 2:47 PM on August 25, 2021 [12 favorites]

I am also a really big fan of the Rider-Waite deck, in many circles it has been renamed the Waite-Smith or Smith-Waite deck, acknowledging Pamela Colman Smith, the artist. Arthur Edward Waite wrote the key/commentary. (Rider was the publisher of the deck).

Although I do occasionally read the cards, I also very much appreciate the artwork, and can see how it would be a source of inspiration. I wouldn't think it strange to use it as a source without having an interest in the divinitory aspects of the tarot, but I do think you are going to run into people who want to talk about that to you, and will assume you have a deep interest in that side of things. So, your mileage might vary, but I would probably not be interested in spending my limited conversational bandwidth explaining my position over and over again when the nth tarot-loving person rushes up excitedly to bond and you have to disappoint them.
posted by nanook at 3:28 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]


From Wikipedia: scholarly research has demonstrated that tarot cards were invented in northern Italy in the 15th century and confirmed that there is no historical evidence of the usage of tarot for divination before the late 18th century. (Endquote)

There is no more spiritualism in tarot than playing MASH in grade school.

I *love* tarot as a lens to examine my current situation through. It gives me new potential perspectives, in no way could I be convinced that it reveals Messages From The Universe.
posted by itesser at 4:24 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's fine, it's mythic Jungian metaphors available for everyone. I also like looking at images of vintage European playing cards. I don't do divination, I did a little when I started handling Tarot decks, and realized that it wasn't for me.

I am curious about which card you're considering for the image.
posted by ovvl at 6:14 PM on August 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: LOLOL no.

From Wikipedia: scholarly research has demonstrated that tarot cards were invented in northern Italy in the 15th century and confirmed that there is no historical evidence of the usage of tarot for divination before the late 18th century. (Endquote)

There is no more spiritualism in tarot than playing MASH in grade school.

what in the world is there to LOL about in this? which centuries are the ones that count as real and respectable, for spiritual purposes?

obviously it is fine to get a P Coleman Smith tattoo just as long as you know the name of the woman whose art you like. people who get very into divination tend to be fussy about the care & handling of their particular deck of cards but not fussy about claiming spurious ownership of any set of drawings or symbols they didn't draw or design personally. and if they did, they would be wrong to do it; believing in it doesn't make it theirs in any way that precludes it being yours. you're not appropriating a practice, you're just copying some pictures because you like them, which is perfectly fine. I think most people who do things with tarot cards don't take it very seriously, anyway, however much they like it.

but some few definitely do, and saying there's no spiritualism in tarot is like saying there's no spiritualism in going to church. in both cases most people do it for fun & aesthetics & social connection & games of let's-pretend, others "believe" in sentimental symbolism that they will admit is not real if cornered, while still others believe - for real - in god knows what kind of supernatural business behind the endeavor. both practices have recorded histories and even whole wikipedia pages to call their own. there is no basis for treating tarot nonsense as contemptible in some special way that puts it beneath any other spiritual nonsense. they all have dates of invention and places of origin! "spiritual" doesn't mean a thing belongs to a highly respectable and well-known organized religion with some kind of sensible rational basis behind it, and never has.

whether there is any spiritualism in tarot (there obviously is, for those few who sincerely perceive it) is a totally different question from whether it is offensive appropriation to tattoo some tarot cards on yourself (it obviously isn't.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:16 PM on August 25, 2021 [8 favorites]

My "is it appropriation?" checklist includes historical or current oppression: "is this item from a culture which has experienced colonisation or oppression by people of my culture?" The answer to that with Tarot cards is "no". So, not appropriative.

I've been using the Smith/Waite deck to read from since high school, and I think your idea sounds awesome.

I would second the recommendation to read up on Pamela Smith, who led a fascinating life-- this Twitter thread is a good place to start, with plenty of images.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:05 AM on August 27, 2021

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