An Interview With Diana McMahon-Collins

I recently published a review of the Tattoo Tarot, newly published by Laurence King. Following my review, I had the pleasure of reaching out to Diana McMahon-Collins, who wrote the companion book for the deck, to talk a bit about the creative process of bringing the Tattoo Tarot to life.

What inspired you to design a tattoo-themed Tarot deck?

I didn’t design the deck images – the illustrator Oliver Munden of Megamunden did. I did provide input into the deck designs to some extent. But the illustrator and I were both hired by the publisher, LKP and the original inspiration for a tattoo-themed deck was theirs (as I understand it, partly because they were working with tattoo art in some of their products already – and they are publishers with a strong ‘art book’ and art works background, who have diversified more recently into gift products, such as games and colouring books).

Concept to completion, how long did it take to make this deck?

I was first contacted about working on the project by the commissioning editor at Laurence King Publishing in March 2015; I don’t know how long the team there had already been considering the project. But, from that date, it’s been just under three and a half years from commission to launch.

When did you start working with MEGAMUNDEN, and what made you choose him as the illustrator for this project?

LKP, the publishers, chose Megamunden and I gather they did so because they had worked with him before on tattoo-themed products.

Regarding working relationships around the Tattoo Tarot, the LKP editor and I built a relationship first, discussing the tarot needs of the deck, before they settled on the artist they would work with on our team. To provide some back story, initially I had suggested using a Rider Waite Smith basis for the deck designs, as it is often the more obvious choice, especially for beginners – who constituted part of the audience the publishers wanted to reach. This was counter to what the publishers were so far estimating what might work best, for a tattoo art-themed deck. But diversifying a further step from art cards and oracles into tarot was a new enterprise for them, and as they they were seeking guidance from me, I had to look at this from the viewpoint of serving a tarot audience, and working within tarot traditions and make suggestions based on those considerations. I could see their point that the Marseille designs that they favoured might make things easier for the artist, focussing on the stylistics of tattoo imagery. However, they felt that my experience with TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isles), and within the tarot world generally, put me in touch with certain needs that readers and those keen on tarot might have. So my understanding is that they felt they should give my suggestion a fair trial – and we worked with another illustrator who they sourced, initially, to develop a sample set of cards, based on descriptions I provided of what the images would need to contain if they were going to keep congruous with a typical RWS style. The illustrator brought his own ideas to the designs, too, of course, which I thought were interesting and could make a fascinating set of cards, particularly as he was interested in aspects of jungle medicine and natural healing. However, the publisher team were finding they were not completely comfortable with the images that were coming through from this initial working process. As I understand it, a few issues came up for the artist, too, which meant he felt he didn’t have sufficient time for the extent of the project (78 pieces of art to cover is no mean feat!) So the project stalled for a while and their ways parted.

For me, though, it was still a project I continued to be interested in working on, if it could be possible to find a path to continue with it. I was under contract by this time, too – and LKP were also still keen in moving forward with a tattoo-themed deck. The project needed a new injection of energy at that point and, after the publishers visited the annual Frankfurt book fair, things started to come together again and they then decided to work with Ollie (Oliver Munden) at Megamunden as the deck’s new illustrator. I understand they had a very comfortable relationship together, from working on previous projects at LKP, which had gone well. At that point, the publishing team rethought how to go about the working process, co-ordinating a flow between the artist, myself and the editors. LKP suggested that we reverse the working method between myself and the illustrator, so that his role would be more along the lines of initiating design ideas for the images, based on a few keywords that LKP chose, together with specific areas of tarot concern that I had been raising. It was an ongoing process, which involved my pointing out possible pitfalls and what really must be incorporated, and required that I check over and feedback on sections of the Major and Minor cards
as the designs were created. Sometimes a few changes would be made by the card artist, based on my feedback, if the publishers felt the points I was making were sufficiently significant. It must have been quite a juggling act for them because they needed to keep the project on track to a publishing schedule, whilst giving the artist enough room to breathe, creatively, and respecting the tarot concerns that I was pressing home! On many occasions, though, I felt that Ollie had definitely absorbed what was needed, whether through the publishing carrier pigeon, or sheer intuition! I would like to think that some of the early communications between myself and the editors had filtered through. But, just as happens for readers working with tarot cards, it seems to me that ideas can pop into the heads of everyone working on a creative project and they can all find they are oddly in synch, even without speaking, sometimes (I think this is to do with what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious). I though it rather wonderful that we often seemed to be on the same waveband, without having to communicate directly a great deal at every juncture! It certainly made it easier to work with time pressures.

Can you talk a bit about the collaborative process of creating the deck? How did you work with MEGAMUNDEN–and how did you both work with the publisher–to bring this deck to life?

Our communications ran back and forth through the editors at the publishing house, rather than directly. I think this is a healthy approach, really, as there could easily be conflicts when people have different agendas and there’s a need to meet in the middle. Plus it’s quite easy to over-burden an artist with too many ideas, when that person may need room to bring their own creative vision. I am the sort of writer who over-writes and has to edit back, rather than being lost for words, so I felt quite sensitive to needing to try to keep brief (it’s a challenge!) As to the nuts and bolts of the collaborative process, as I understand it, the LKP editorial team passed preliminary information I had provided, to Megamunden, along with some of their own suggestions, before he began full scale on the deck designs. Initially they sent me samples of a few cards he had designed, to ensure that we did indeed have the basis of a tarot deck there (which, thankfully, I could see we clearly did!) The larger part of our work, ideas and vision exchanges happened, though, when Ollie was underway with designing larger sections of the deck. To give a context for this, the publishers explained that they wanted to give him plenty of room for creativity as an illustrator – which I could appreciate. I am foremost a writer and if someone was sitting on my shoulder telling me exactly what to write, all the time, I would find that hampered my creative flow. So I could quite see their point. Working in that way required an element of faith, too, sometimes, from my side – what if the editors didn’t send all my communicated concerns and reflections on to the artist? They were at liberty to send only what they wanted to send him, after all! I certainly spent some of my time praying that the points I thought really mattered would manage to wing their way to the artist. Somehow, it did actually all work rather well, though.

My job around the card designs was very much about ensuring that we stay on track with the requirements of a tarot deck – and that we maintain as much as integrity as possible with tarot traditions, without losing elements of creativity, inventiveness and, of course, tattoo-artistry. This was not intended to be a clone of a previous deck, after all – more of a ‘reinvention’ of sorts. The publishers liked the style of a fairly recent, contemporary deck – the Zombie Tarot – and they were quite keen for the end product to be somewhere along those lines, at least in the light-hearted, fun feel of the concept, and including a workable booklet as part of the set – but with a traditional Tarot de Marseille design basis for the cards. That was quite an ‘ask’, in a way! But I think all of us on the final team, working on this project, were up for the challenge.

It was also my role to create the booklet to go with the deck, to make Tattoo Tarot a set in the style of a gift (hence the gorgeous box it comes in!) – one that I imagine LKP felt would take its place comfortably within their existing gift range. If you look at their online Autumn 2018 gift catalogue, you will be able to see that they publish a range of board and card-based games within their gifts department, some of which are decks somewhat similar to oracle card decks, but with more of an art based theme and ‘games’ focus, than what I think of as pure divination decks (the Tattoo Tarot set features in that
particular issue of the LKP gifts catalogue, as it happens).

So, how this was all set up was that LKP liaised with me to create a working method that could work for all of us. It was quite a long process, with lots of checking and feedback along the way. But it also made it manageable, because I would receive perhaps ten or twenty draft card images at a time, to check over. From my side I felt I needed to consider not only whether expected details were present, but to ask questions about anything I did not immediately recognise (such as a few unusual, versions of spiritual symbols that I had not come across before). I also wanted to make note of any crossover with other decks and ensure that everything felt as congruous as it could do. For instance, given that the so-called ‘pip’ cards in this deck have more imagery detail than typical Marseille decks have usually tended to, if a card reminded me of one that I had worked with in another deck – even in a RWS style deck – I wanted to check whether it was in the same suit (and would say something about it, if not). This is very much a tarot-reader focus, as you may appreciate; for me, it can get confusing if I see an image in one deck that is, say, a Wands suit card of a particular number, but then a similar image interpretation appears in another deck with that same number but it’s a Cups suit card (as an example).). It also mattered to me that the Court cards represented the elemental focuses of their suits accurately. This perhaps comes from being someone who has worked in depth with astrology as well as with tarot, through all of my professional life in these fields. I am aware that the stronger astrological focuses or meanings were attached at the RWS point of developing the cards, not least through the Order of the Golden Dawn involvement. So that is not a purely Marseille deck concern. But it also seemed evident to me that RWS themes were in the illustrator’s psyche – it’s pretty hard to avoid them really, as Rider Waite Smith art and ideas have tended to dominate the modern tarot world. By extension, they might also be in the general public psyche, which would include people new to tarot – part of the intended audience for this innovative tarot set. At that level, it seemed to make sense to try to keep in line with the general flow sometimes. Literally, too, I sometimes needed to give a little leeway and work with what I was faced with (no pun intended regarding ‘faces’ of the cards!)

What was the biggest challenge in designing the deck?

You will probably have to ask Megamunden that question! But if you want to know what the biggest challenge was in creating the booklet, I would say there were several. One major consideration was that the booklet I was asked to write, several editors down the line and further into the project, was requested to be half the size of the original booklet envisaged. The publishers’ other references, before interacting more closely with someone from the tarot world, like myself, had been the traditional Marseille decks, Rider-Waite sets and a few contemporary tarots, with an emphasis on fairly minimal words in the text. We had to find a happy medium between the amount of detail I thought tarot readers would appreciate and the restrictions of the format we were working with, ie a booklet to fit comfortably alongside the deck within the gift box the publishers had in mind. To be fair, I felt that Laurence King wanted to offer more to readers, to help tarot newbies be able to work with a new deck with some ease, but maybe didn’t fully grasp how much detail would be ideal – although I did try to emphasise this. The end result is that the Minor cards got a pretty full set of interpretive keywords and phrases (at my insistence); my concession, to spatial needs, was to let the Court cards have more generic meanings by suit and element and to agree to fairly short meanings for the Major cards.

Another challenge was that, the further I researched the textual element, when it came to pinning down meanings specific to Marseille designs and the cartomantic approach I realised they were much more limited – and potentially confusing for anyone who had mostly had exposure to RWS tarot styles (which have become quite known in the tarot world – and perhaps in the public consciousness, even – I’m always surprised when new clients say to me “but Death doesn’t mean ‘death’ does it?” – they’ve picked that knowledge up from somewhere!)

Those issues aside, my main brief was to make the booklet information accessible enough that a beginner could run with it and be able to manage a reading just from the set material (cards and booklet). But I also wanted to produce something that a more advanced reader could enjoy using. And I felt the need to respect the knowledge of established tarot readers, who are much more educated in tarot these days, thanks in part to the internet (and the existence of organisations like the one we founded – TABI). Despite what I thought was a fairly high level of tarot knowledge from my work practice, study, tutoring and mentoring in the subject over the years, it was still quite a learning curve for me to produce what was required for this project. I was not being asked to just apply my own understandings, after all. Neither could I simply ‘borrow’ large chunks of existing interpretations wholesale – that is unacceptable in the world of publishing, due to copyright restrictions (and quite rightly so). Plus my thinking needed to shift from a rich batch of RWS associations to getting a hold of historic details of cartomantic understandings. It was very interesting actually, as, the more research I did, the more I could see how previous writers had also struggled! I consulted a variety of sources in the end – probably more than I needed to – and worked out a plan for trying to address the various requirements I was facing. Probably, like other readers, I’ve often looked at a new deck and the LWB (little white booklet) that comes with it and thought “if I was writing this booklet, I’d put X, y and z in it”. So I really wanted to deliver on that as much as possible, and provide meanings that readers could choose from. I don’t believe in boxing people in. I think we are individuals as tarot readers and that given words and phrases that offer ‘meanings’ can be part of a larger, intuitive process that brings the reader closest to the truth of the situation they are looking at. So my challenge was in providing a bridge that would respect cartomantic roots, reach across to by now very established understandings based on a Rider-Waite-Smith comprehension of cards (because readers are much more educated in tarot knowledge now than when I first picked up a deck – and many books out there contain meanings with that RWS comprehension underpinning them), and also inject a little bit of something new, stimulating and compassionate. Hopefully those are my little bits of inspiration, that will have filtered into the booklet – and I hope my efforts make using the deck even more accessible than just looking at the cards alone (as beautiful and communicative as they are). I fully believe in using words together with images to construct a meaningful story, so I put that suggestion into the working method suggested in the booklet, too. My hope is that it will assist new readers, especially. Existing readers may not need that level of detail, obviously. They may be perfectly happy with how they already handle tarot cards. But I hope there’s a little bit of something for everyone in there. Personally, I love it when a deck comes with some sort of written matter that’s more than just a tiny gesture, or doesn’t join the dots of how to really try making sense of the cards in a proper reading.

Tattoo Tarot has unillustrated pips in the style of the Tarot de Marseille. Why did you make this decision? What do you think it adds to the deck, and how do the more minimal pip cards intersect with MEGAMUNDEN’s illustrative style?

As you probably know by now, it wasn’t my decision, or my first choice to use the Tarot de Marseille style. Nonetheless, I think Tattoo Tarot is quite a special deck because the Marseille basis has not been pushed as far before, perhaps. I have seen other decks that have worked on capturing the original integrity of the Marseille cards and I totally respect that approach, too. I have worked in study groups on methods for reading the Marseille, which have also been very interesting. And I have seen decks that fall back on the ‘pips’ approach without developing much beyond a numbered amount of criss-crossed batons/wands, swords etc. Some of those have left me a bit cold – and I think they can sometimes be confusing for readers to work with, especially beginners, as their differentiations may not be glaringly obvious. But Tattoo Tarot is different. For example, I emphasised that I thought it a good idea to try to ensure that the Wands appear very obviously distinct from the Swords – that we didn’t just have a lot of criss-crossed, upright numbers of similar looking items. If you look at Megamunden’s design for the 6 of Swords, for instance, you have an image that almost makes up a boat – which is, uncannily, not unlike the RWS imagery for that card. There are flames in between the swords, too, giving a sense of urgency of movement. Again, there’s something of the RWS flavour of visual detail in there, yet without being an RWS image as such. You could argue that the 7 of Swords in the Tattoo Tarot looks a little similar to the 6 of Swords card, but, actually, the swords there are all ‘parked’ in a red heart – a distinctive piece of tattoo imagery. And you could see that symbolism as rather like the idea of the Musketeers, too, with their ‘all for one/one for all’ approach, the sword tips being pooled together, one heart, one group of people, giving a united community theme. There is then a separate sword beneath, which appears to be supporting the others, but which could also possibly pull away at any moment. Again, that’s curiously leaning over towards RWS imagery, yet without being an RWS scene!

I think the way that Ollie created the cards is very clever. As far as I can tell, from the resulting images, he listened to messages I put across about what certain tarot symbols convey (eg flames, serpents, lamps/lights, flowers, banners/ribbons, and the spiritual significance of particular colours) and also worked with tattoo and spiritual imagery that was meaningful to him – eyes, hearts, flowers, and so on. He also made cards which, in the traditional Marseille decks might have seemed quite minimal in imagery, contain more instant meaning in the visuals. For example, the 7 of Coins features an hourglass, communicating something about the passage of time, along with arrows which you might interpret as saying something about aims, targets, directions, etc. The 5 of Coins contains a skull – a typical tattoo image – but also a tarot image relating to ideas of death and age. And then you might also have a spiritual reference to do with crystal skulls, ancestors and inheritance matters (or lack of inheritance – either way, in the booklet, I included the terms ‘family loyalties’ and ‘loss’). Of course, one of the really fun things in the deck is that many of the human figures – in the Court cards, particularly – have tattoos on their bodies! That type of artistry is unquestionably Ollie’s influence. He is a tattoo artist, after all.

Is there any card in the deck that you’re particularly proud of?

I don’t think I can lay claim to the card designs in quite that way. It’s fair to say I had some influence in the project, but the images are largely Ollie’s art works and the project was a team one, initiated by the publisher. I think Megamunden did a great job and it was fun seeing what he would come up with, in each batch of cards. I can also say that I’m very pleased that we seem to have all worked well as a team, together – Ollie, myself and the LKP editors and marketing department. As for my personal involvement, if I’m especially proud of something it’s that I managed to hold the ground for the tarot corner of the project, keeping us in line with traditions as much as possible – and with what was in my heart – whilst contributing to a product set that’s really quite original in parts, too. I sometimes felt like the killjoy or the boring person, having to say “Yes, very nice, but…. there’s this to consider”! It wasn’t often that way, though, thankfully. More often than not, I loved seeing the new cards coming through and noticing how they were gelling with what I had been writing for the booklet. Sometimes that timing was out of synch – just because the written words needed to be ready sooner. It might seem upside down, but that was the schedule I was handed and I soon realised that any protests would make no difference, so I knuckled down and got on with the job. I sometimes just had to hope and pray that we would have enough crossover of ideas in the end – by some miracle, we did seem to, fortunately.

I am also so glad that I was able to put together a companion booklet that people seem to be able to actually work with (from feedback received so far) and which contains quite extensive meanings for the Minor Cards, compared with other Marseille-inspired deck booklets (which is something I pushed for, right from the start). To put that in context, when the project first began, the vision was that I was going to be writing something much longer. Many things changed across the span of time for this project, however, including that I worked with 5 different editors, 2 different artists and a whole team of publicity people (who are amazingly creative and fun to work with!) You just have to roll with that kind of situation. One of the initiatives the team came up with, once the advance deck copies were published, was to commission me to give readings at their Buyers’ Games Night in Islington, London, earlier in the summer, where they were showcasing Tattoo Tarot alongside other gift and games products. It was very interesting meeting bookstore buyers and producers of creative products and giving them readings – some of them had never come into close contact with a tarot deck before. It was a real high energy night and people seemed to really enjoy seeing the cards and understanding the interpretations I offered. That felt like a set of achievements, there and then – a sort of culmination of all the previous and current efforts. Overall, I am proud of staying the course with this project, because it has been quite a while in the making – it has also been a very interesting experience of managing harmonious team work, sometimes under quite a lot of pressure – and I knew I wanted to see it through to the end. Occasionally, when I would have worries about how best to proceed, how much to say, or how things might work out, I would consult my tarot cards and, invariably, I would show up as either the High Priestess, the Queen of Wands or Queen of Swords. I felt my job was partly to retain that gentle, but solid presence, alongside positivity, appreciating other people’s efforts and sometimes being a bit stern! I do think that both the Queen
of Wands and Queen of Swords in the Tattoo Tarot are fabulous images. I rather like most of the Court cards, actually – they have come to life for me in this deck more than they sometimes have in other decks (whether Marseille based or Rider-Waite-Smith). And I love that this apparently Marseille set of pip cards has so much more going on than the traditional Tarot de Marseille decks I had seen before.

What does Tattoo Tarot bring to the table that hasn’t been seen before in Tarot?

Tattoos! Or at least, a proliferation of body tattoos, as well as tattoo imagery in general. Plus that bridge between a Marseille pips style deck and something with a bit more of the pizzazz that RWS decks can often manage, because their style is more lyrical and less graphic (if those are reasonable terms for design approaches – I don’t consider myself to be a design expert. The extent of my physical, graphic design for this deck was a rough outline of the Heart, Blooming Flower and Third Eye Insight layout shapes to show the card layouts for the unique spreads I created for the booklet!) And, finally, a booklet that provides enough information to put a reading together, without being an entire book to have to cart around along with the deck. Ironically, I easily had enough material and ideas to write a much longer book – and perhaps will do, in the future if there seems to be a need – along with another deck on RWS themes, as I had written a lot of inspirational material that came up when I first began working on the project, back when we began with that design basis and the working method of my providing a brief to the artist. It has been sitting in my ‘projects’ basket as something I might do something about when I find some time to get behind it!

If you could have people take away one thing from working with this deck, what would you want it to be?

That they have fun and find inspiration in doing their tarot readings, whilst discovering the meanings, truth and beautiful details that this deck and booklet set can offer them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s