As you’re probably aware, I enjoy to grab the occasional new (or old) tarot deck and give it a whirl in my professional and personal tarot work. Sometimes, I will pass a new deck in a bookshop and, if it’s reasonably priced, I’ll give it a shot. There are also decks which pop up, here and there, that I think will make good decks for client readings.
But I must confess that after many years of tarot buying, the excitement of getting a new deck has somewhat dulled for me. This is not to say, of course, that there is not a great selection of new packs out there but I think I’ve possibly grown out of the buzz I used to experience when ripping into a new set and don’t feel the surge of excitement that fizzes and cracks around a soon-to-be-released pack. However, there is an exception to every rule: and at this time, that exception is the Bonefire Tarot by Gabi Angus-West.
I had seen this deck when Gabi self-published it, though I never owned a copy back then. There are certain styles of art that really grab a reader and, for me, the black backgrounds, bold colours, and modern characters were an instant pull on my tarot heart. It began speaking to me right from the get-go.
As with many things, life and other social media posts got in the way and the Bonefire was pushed to a corner of my mind for a while – until, that is, I noticed it as a Fools Dog app on my iPhone and iPad. I bought it straight away and began using it for a week in my Tarot Thoughts videos across social media. It was popular with viewers and I would spend ages zooming in and looking at the details of Gabi’s paintings. It was around this time that I heard the Bonefire was going to be released by Schiffer. Down to the wonder of Christmas lists, the Bonefire quickly found its way onto mine and that excitement of ripping into shrink-wrap and the smell of tarot ink was enjoyed once again.
As I have mentioned in my reviews of other Schiffer publications, the presentation is exquisite. The box has a magnetic closure, is strong, and is big enough to house the companion book. A shallow well holds the deck in two parts beneath it. The cards themselves are laminated, but are neither too thick or too thin. In fact, they’re just right – think ‘Hay House stock’, and you’re about there. If I had to be picky, I’d mention that housing a split deck in a single well allows for the cards to slide over one another, which nearly bent one of mine when the book was placed on top of them. But this is a small problem for me since I rehoused my deck in a new bag and use the box to keep the book safe.
The Bonefire Tarot is traditional, since it would be easy for anyone versed in the Rider Waite tradition to read it straight out of the box, but what makes this so enticing, is that it unashamedly walks the path of the Rider Waite in its own shoes – and rightly so! Taking inspiration from tattoo culture and, in particular, the work of Sailor Jerry Collins, it has a bold and retro feel to it. As a life-long artist, Gabi developed this style prior to the Bonefire Tarot, customising jewellery and small talismans, known affectionately as Lucky paintings. For anyone interested in the world of tattoo art, you’ll recognise flames, skulls, swords, roses, and serpents amongst the images.
Time and again, I have mentioned in reviews about how I like simplicity; and, for the most part, I do. But where some decks can appear cluttered, the symbols, figures and backgrounds work well together in these cards, swimming harmoniously, rather than in conflict. It’s interesting to note that Gabi has recently been working on another deck inspired by the life of Frida Kahlo, because in some ways, I can see Frida’s influence here too. She also painted images tainted by her personal experience which were, at times, more like dream sequences than straight interpretations. The Death card (titled simply ’13’) is a good example, showing us all of Waite’s traditional symbols, poetically assembled in a montage of colour and mood.
One of the things which may be a surprise for many is that Gabi did not have prior understanding of the cards before working on the project. The reason that this might be surprising is that her images and interpretations are both filled to the brim with insightful details and personal wisdom. You’d think she’d been reading tarot her whole life!
The book that accompanies the set is a gem because it comes straight from the creator. I really enjoy to read about how a deck was born and the process of its construction. Each of the cards has a thorough explanation, originating from Gabi’s research and her time spent with each painting. The 8 of Coins shows the artist from behind, working at her desk at night. Beside her is a desk light and she carefully paints the coins which have become stars in the night sky. Describing her process of painting this deck, you really get an idea of the commitment involved within the meaning of the 8 of Coins, which is beautifully expressed in her interpretation – “It was an energy of Wands that drove me to the conclusion, but the Coins were putting in the hours”.
The courts in this deck are gender-balanced – the Pages and Queens are female and the Knights and Kings are male. I particularly like the Knight and Queen of Cups – his eyes are misty, seduced by his emotions and she looks ready to take a long and reflective dive into the depths of hers.
While every card is a fresh burst of colour and symbolism, there is much to look at and get to know in these cards. While Gabi interestingly manipulates traditional symbolism (carrying the towers of The Moon into her Sun card), she thoughtfully sprinkles her own Bonefire symbols throughout the deck – in the eleventh trump, Lady Justice wears a spider’s web tattoo on her neck, which suggests she might have experienced a little time at Her Magesty’s Pleasure. The deck rightfully has its place in the lineage of decks based on the Rider Waite Smith, but it is also a creature of its own flavour.
While I love many decks that are created on the computer (I designed two myself), there is something enchanting about fresh paint and a lack of photo-realism that serenades my tarot-heart. There is both style and substance to this deck. It will not be a pack for everyone, and no one tarot will or should be, but it is far more than just a traditional deck painted within a tattoo theme. Gabi Angus-West has really saturated herself in the world of the tarot during the long process of creating Bonefire and used the stories of both traditonal tarot and her own experience to create a deck that is warm and vibrant, but deliciously dark and deep. There is a story behind the eyes of every card in this deck, begging you to take a closer look.
Images from Bonfire Tarot by Gabi Angus-West, published by Schiffer Publishing