Melina Ramirez, a native of San Jose, CA, created a tarot deck as a tribute to the inclusive community of the San Francisco Bay Area nightlight of artists, performers, producers and supporters. Due to COVID-19 restrictions around public gathering, her time with this newfound community, was cut short. This deck documents and highlights the people that make up such a community. Melina goes by SpanishforOcean when making art and Alexa serenade when on stage.

Interview edited for brevity and clarity. All images and art provided courtesy of Melina Ramirez.

How did you first get introduced to burlesque? 

I got into burlesque about 2015 then I started taking classes from a local performer who goes by the stage name Tease Blossom, she was also a producer for a show called Bad Influence Burlesque which would play at the San Jose Improv. After taking a couple of classes with her I became a stage kitten, which is like the stagehands of the burlesque shows taking out items of clothing, setting up props and helping behind the scenes. Unfortunately, that show is no longer in production, so I ended up becoming a regular stage kitten for Circus of Sin which is a local burlesque variety show in downtown San Jose. It’s also an inclusive community that features different kinds of acts not just burlesque. We also do drag, comedy, dance, but we’re most known for our burlesque performances.

How did that influence your decision to do a tarot project? 

Once the mandate first and lockdown first happened here, it was a shock and everyone was wondering what was going to become of our nightlife. I really miss this and so do a lot of people. I just thought it was really important to honor this really inclusive and diverse scene of performers and producers that has really done so much for me in terms of just feeling like I’m part of something bigger than myself because I was never really involved in stuff before. I was never really involved in things as a child or teenager or even as a college student because there just weren’t many things that caught my interest or that I cared to be involved in. But once I got my driver’s license, at the age of 24, that’s when I really had the freedom to actually pursue my interests and it just turned into this. So, this project is really my love letter to that part of my life that I’ll cherish and that I miss.

How do you come up with the theme for each tarot card?

I work with each of the participants who chose their own cards based on what became available. I sold spots for the card on a first come first serve basis. So, I process it and when I get to a certain performer in my queue, I’ll reach out to them, and have them send me pictures of themselves that they like or take pictures of themselves in a pose that they want or a pose similar to the one that’s depicted in the traditional tarot deck. And I make adjustments based on their preferences after I make an initial sketch. It’s interesting to see how a lot of these performers have chosen to make their cards more modern. So for instance, I have a performer who is a pole dancer and she chose the Tower. I depicted her pole as the Tower. And I have a bartender who is the Nine of Cups and it’s just an illustration of her behind the bar presenting these nine golden cups. Before committing to doing the deck, I had done a drawing just for fun of my friend Justin Brown who is a photographer and thought of him as the Fool. Because he is just so happy-go-lucky and he actually used to work for a tech company full time, he gave that all up so that you can pursue his dream of being a full-time freelance photographer. And I feel like people who don’t really understand the value of the art, I feel like they would look at someone like Justin and think he was a fool. But he’s just a very radiant being so I depicted him as that.

Do you do tarot yourself? 

Actually, before I committed to this project, I just wasn’t really well-versed in it. So, this was more of a learning experience for me. I’m still getting the hang of the nuances of each card and what they mean. I still need a guide when I’m working with the deck, I still need to look up at the meanings. One thing I would really like to do, once this deck is printed, is to tell how cool the people in the cards are.

What do you wish people would understand about this project (aside from memorializing creatives in the Bay area)? 

What I really want this project is to be about my friends and other people we know, and for people to learn about the scene. I want it to be something we could use to reconnect with each other and just sort of open up a conversation about the influence of the art. Because I think it’s important now more than ever to use art to reconnect and get each other through this constant ambivalence that we are living through during this pandemic. So, I wanted this to be something people could celebrate and gather with once we can finally resume gatherings again.

Why did you use the theme of tarot?

This was actually something that another local performer Donny had pushed on me for a while just before the pandemic. I already make art for Circus of Sin, and I make their flyers and images for buttons and stuff. When I first posted that drawing, I did of my friend Justin as the Fool, I was told to make a deck. But Donny actually paid me to do a drawing of him as the Devil, and then I had another performer do four drawings of her and other performers for the deck. At this point I already had a number of tarot cards done, but I hadn’t committed to making a deck yet. It was still something I was playing with and then the word spread and thought “now I have to do it.” I think it’s good because I think it’s definitely helped me get through this quarantine and just sort of give me something to look forward to because things are so tense right now. I’m an essential worker and the work environment hasn’t been great, so I view this project as my baby. It’s something I’m really passionate about.

Are all the cards picked out?

All the cards have been sold. I have the whole deck ready of the local Bay Area performers and creatives. I’m very excited to see the outcome and get to the printing stage already, but first I have to make all the art which is a huge ordeal.

Did you include yourself in any of the cards?

Yes, I’m the Eight of Pentacles.

How long does it take you to create each tarot card? What is your process? 

Each sketch takes me about an hour and then I transfer it onto Bristol paper which usually takes about 20 minutes. I actually have an artist assistant named Eric Ipsen based in Redwood City, he’s the Hermit – he’s very soft-spoken but he’s a very talented illustrator. He’s really been helping me out with this project a lot by just doing the task of inking the drawings that I draw on pencil.

What is your goal for this project in the future?

My goal is to have decks printed for sale. I want to have a limited quantity printed and have it available, ideally, at local independent businesses that would be interested in carrying them. I would also like to have enough to have at local events, local art fairs, once it’s safe to actually do things like that again. I would also really love to have an art exhibition about it and maybe have that interactive aspect of reading people’s fortune with these cards.

How would you describe your art?

Before I committed to this project, I was already doing artwork for Circus of Sin. I usually do like pinup style art with a character that I created called Hello Sindi, who also has a card in the deck. She is the Ace of Cups, because the logo of Circus of Sin is this character I created, she’s sitting in a martini glass. I approach drawing as putting my memories and fantasies in the form of a graphic novel.