Interview with Joseph Vargo about The Gothic Tarot - March 2003

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Which artists are the main influences on your style, particularly as we see displayed in The Gothic Tarot?

My main artistic influence has always been fantasy art icon Frank Frazetta. His work is seething with primal energy. He is a master at capturing a mood and making the fantastic look believable. Many fantasy artists attempt to mimic Frazetta's style, and I suppose I am guilty of this as well to some extent, but I really learned a lot by studying his work. Because of him, I strive to render my main characters as realistically as possible and I try to set a mood without going overboard with intricately detailed backgrounds.

Were you a fan of horror and sci-fi magazines when you were a kid? For example, did you ever read (or encounter anyway) "Creepy" or "Eerie" magazines? A number of your cards remind me of Frazetta's covers for some of those mags.

I remember seeing "Creepy" and "Eerie" as a kid, but my parents didn't allow me to have them. I guess they were afraid that such horrific stories and images would corrupt my impressionable young mind. But I remember seeing one of Frazetta's art books when I was a teenager. It was like a catalog of all those great covers he had painted over the years. I stood there completely transfixed as I thumbed through page after page of lavish artwork depicting sensuous, witchy women, monstrous beasts and primal, dark warriors. I bought the book and it became the first of many editions in my ever-growing fantasy art library.

With respect to Gothic style, and understanding it is a complex subcultural expression, what in your view are the two or three main ideas or themes Goths are articulating, and that you are hoping to express in your artwork?

The terms "Goth" and "Gothic" have slightly different connotations. Originally the word "Gothic" was applied to the architecture of medieval cathedrals. Their style differed so much from the established architecture of the times that they were designated "Gothic" as a disparaging term in reference to the invading barbarian hordes that conquered Rome.
     Today the word "Goth" represents a sub-culture of modern rebellion and decadence, whereas "Gothic" refers to a dark and romantic style in line with the more traditional Old World concepts of the term such as Gothic architecture and the classic literature of writers like Stoker and Poe. Because of this, my main themes for the images in this deck are ghosts, dark angels and gargoyle-encrusted castles, with a strong emphasis on the darkly alluring creatures of the vampire mythos.

You say you wished not to employ a "random image" process in the selection of images to be used in your Tarot, yet you also decided to use pre-existing artwork to "fit" certain cards. In some cases however you created new works. Would you please discuss this process, and how you decided which cards could do with artwork you already had available and which demanded new artwork?

I have amassed quite a large body of gothic-themed work over the past twelve years with various images that were originally created for calendars, posters and CD covers, so I began by listing about one hundred images that might be appropriate for the Gothic Tarot project. Next, I charted out which particular images best fit the concepts of specific cards. In many cases, there were several choices available for certain cards, but in other cases, none of my existing images fit, so new artwork had to be created. Several works didn't fit in anywhere and I didn't want to force them, so they were discarded. Very few of the existing pieces that were used remained unaltered. For example, lightning was added to The Tower, a wolf was added to The Fool, and backgrounds and color schemes of many of the images were completely changed to fit the mood of the deck. The various symbols of the suits were drawn by hand then added to the existing artwork through the wonders of modern technology. Naturally, I wanted the images that were chosen for the Major Arcana to be the strongest representations of the traditional concepts.
     It was really amazing how much of my existing art lent itself to the Tarot. Examples of pre-existing artwork that fit smoothly without any alterations are The High Priestess, The Emperor, The Lovers, Strength, The Hermit, The Sun and The Moon, just to name a few. Cards such as The Chariot and The Hanged Man are examples of art that was created specifically for this deck.

Which one or two of your cards do you like the most and do you feel was most successful in expressing both a Gothic and Tarotic sensibility?

I took this project very seriously and worked very hard to achieve a seamless blend between the two realms. I am quite proud of the fact that the entire deck successfully intertwines both concepts, but if I had to choose just two cards that best utilize gothic imagery to convey traditional Tarot concepts, I would have to choose The Emperor and Strength. However, I think that my images for The Sun and The Moon are better representations of the divinatory meanings of those particular cards than the traditional illustrations.

Tarot, at least a certain idea about it, seems to be part of the Gothic culture (or a lot of Goths seem to like Tarot anyway). Why do you think that is?

Mainly because they both represent Old World concepts and things that are dark and shrouded in mystery. A large portion of the modern Gothic community has an appreciation for Occult symbolism purely on an aesthetic level while others have genuine Pagan and Wiccan beliefs.

You chose to base your ideas and images on the Tarot of A.E. Waite, at least as a "preliminary guide". Some people might think Crowley's Thoth Tarot would be a better basis for the creation of a Gothic Tarot. Did you also study Crowley's ideas or images in shaping what you were doing?

No. Not at all. Crowley's concepts of the Tarot were very surrealistic and not gothic in any sense. He was also of the misguided and unoriginal conception that the Tarot was derived from the Egyptian Book of Thoth. Waite's Tarot was the first deck to fully illustrate the Minor Arcana and utilizes esoteric symbolism very well. Since I was going to exercise my own creativity and artistic license in rendering the entire Major and Minor Arcana with a true gothic flair, I went directly to the original source.

Your deck, as explained in the accompanying booklet, focuses almost exclusively on the fortune-telling aspect of Tarot. You're not apparently attempting to express any metaphysical or occultist dogma in your deck, but are mainly intending it to be used both as an expression of Gothic style and for divination. Is that correct?

Of course, although the Tarot itself utilizes imagery from a variety of doctrines, and metaphysical and occult symbolism runs rampant throughout it. Christian, Egyptian, and Hebrew motifs are all mingled together in most traditional decks. Angels, demons, kings and queens are utilized as personifications of hope and despair, prosperity and turmoil. The Tarot is an extraordinarily popular instrument of divination and it should be left open for personal interpretation. It shouldn't preach sermons or espouse any particular dogma. People who create decks like that have their own agendas that are in direct contrast to the open-minded principles of the Tarot. I'm not a Satanist and I'm not an Evangelist. I'm not even what you would consider to be an Occultist, but I am intrigued by the Tarot and I hold a fascination and respect for it.

Could you explain in a little more detail the Realm Icon? I'm not familiar with it and would like to know, for example, which part of it represents the dark force and which the light and is there a place in it where their synthesis is indicated?

The Realm Icon that marks the backs of the Gothic Tarot cards represents the convergence of the forces of light and darkness, order and chaos. The central ring design represents the physical realm of man, and if you'll notice it's the same design that's caught between the forces of good and evil in the image of The World. The Icon itself is actually more of a symbolic representation than an artistic depiction, along the lines of an Egyptian ankh, but different people see different things in it. It's sort of like an esoteric Rorschach test.

There is a strong emphasis these days in Tarot in making Tarots that demonstrate a sensitivity to many cultures and particularly ethnicities. Goth and Tarot are mainly eurocultural, at least in their roots. And certainly most of your cards depict VERY pale creatures. I'm wondering if you feel concerns about ethnicity and multicultural sensitivity should extend to the realm of the dead, or undead.

I've always depicted my Gothic characters as gaunt, pale-skinned beings with lifeless eyes in order to make them subliminally recognizable as undead creatures of the night. Yes, I agree that Goth and Tarot concepts conjure strong Eurocultural connotations and are traditionally depicted as such. However, I feel that some non-traditional decks that successfully incorporate Asian or African motifs can be appreciated as much as a gothic film like Blade which strayed from the traditional European vampire stereotype.

What did you have in mind for your Death card?

I had a lot of choices for the Death card, such as the designs that eventually became the King of Wands and the Five of Wands. I even had two traditional looking Grim reapers that I didn't include in the Gothic Tarot because I felt that they were too unoriginal for this project. The ominous Scarecrow painting, with the wraith-like figure silhouetted against a blood-red sky conveyed the spiritual aspects as well as the stark realities of death better than any of the other choices. This particular piece is a fan favorite and has been featured on the cover of Dark Realms magazine and also as a postcard and calendar image. To me, it embodies drastic change beyond human control.