Vampir Magazine, Germany, May 2003
Interview with Joseph Vargo by Britta Radkowsky
What was your inspiration for The Gothic
I have created and amassed quite a large body of gothic-themed work during my career as a fantasy artist, and throughout the years, several people had commented that my paintings would make an interesting Tarot Deck. The idea of creating a Gothic Tarot deck intrigued me, but I always seemed to be too busy with other projects to commit to one of such magnitude. When I started giving the Tarot project some serious consideration, I compiled about one hundred images that were originally created for calendars, posters and CD covers that I thought would be appropriate for the deck. 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. 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 the artwork that I had created several years earlier actually lent itself perfectly to the Tarot. It was as if it was always meant to be.
Your special challenge in this project?
The original concept was to only create full illustrations for the 22 cards of the Major Arcana and to utilize repetitive design elements of the four suits to illustrate the Minor Arcana. However, the more research I did into the symbolic representations of classic Tarot decks, I decided to commit to a full-scale project of creating individual illustrations for each of the 78 cards. I had seen other Tarot decks by popular fantasy artists that were simply a collection of random images unrelated to the meanings of the specific cards. These decks, though aesthetically pleasing on the surface, were completely impractical. I wanted to create a moody and visually alluring tarot deck that could easily be used for fortune telling.
How long did you work on the Gothic Tarot?
The deck contains all of my most popular images that had previously been featured in calendars and posters, as well as other paintings from my private collection, so although the project took less than a year to go from conception to completion, The Gothic Tarot represents more than ten years of work
In which way do you think this set is different from other "dark" tarot-cards?
The Gothic Tarot offers fully painted depictions of all the Major and Minor Arcana. The imagery of vampires, gargoyles, dark angels and ghosts is specific to each card, they are not just random images as in so many other "dark" decks. The Gothic Tarot also utilizes the traditional Old World concept of the Tarot and does not have a specific religious agenda. It's also very romantic, in a darkly alluring way. This deck is truly Gothic in every sense.
Why did you paint so many vampire related pictures?
Ever since I was a youth, I have been drawn to gothic themes such as vampires, gargoyles and graveyard ghosts. I love Gothic architecture, literature and films and my artwork has always reflected my fascination with these shadowy subjects.
Does the vampire itself means something special to you?
To me, the vampire represents a very dark and romantic fantasy. Mysterious, powerful and seductive, the vampire possesses a dangerous and irresistible allure.
Ever met a real vampire? If not: would you love to meet one?
I've never met a real vampire, at least not one that I know of, but yes, it would be fascinating to spend an evening with an actual vampire.
Do you know how to use tarot-cards?
Yes, I did a great deal of research into the Tarot in order to understand how to create an accurate deck.
Do you personally use tarot-cards to foresee your future?
No, I don't really use Tarot cards. I look at life as a mystery and I like to be surprised. I don't have a strong desire to know what the future holds. I like to think that I am forging my own destiny.
What do you think in general of foreseeing the future?
I feel that most predictions are vague, but they can be useful to gain insight into one's self. Things such as Tarot cards and daily horoscopes can offer positive reinforcements to sensitive egos and keep people from repeating past mistakes. Some people swear that the Tarot acts as a conduit that allows them to glean information from the spiritual realm, but I personally have never shared this experience.
Which card do you love the most?
That's like asking "which of your children do you love most?" I am really quite proud of the entire deck. My style is to render the characters with a sinister elegance while establishing a gothic mood with architectural elements such as gargoyles, columns, archways and tombstones. I try to depict all the most appealing aspects of vampires in my paintings-the beautiful, the horrific, the sensual, and the tragic. Though no single piece illustrates all of these characteristics at once, "Dark Tower" represents the ultimate dark and brooding male vampire, whereas "Possessed" depicts the alluring female vampire, reveling in the night. "Vampire's Kiss" exemplifies the aspects of passion, seduction and surrendering to the dark.
I took this project very seriously and worked very hard to achieve a seamless blend between the two realms. I feel 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.
The most difficult card to paint?
That's a tough question. Every painting presents its own unique challenges, and I have to admit that each painting goes through a stage where I absolutely hate it. I want to Gesso over the whole thing and just start over. I've come to accept the fact that this is just part of my creative process, so I just keep painting and correcting the things that aren't right and eventually I work through it. As far as the Tarot deck is concerned, I would have to say that The Emperor presented the biggest challenge when I was painting it. The card, which portrays Dracula sitting in a throne surrounded by three vampiric brides, also depicts a large black wolf at Dracula's side, a perched raven and swooping vampire bats. I wanted to create a painting that included all these popular Gothic elements without cluttering up the composition. The resulting image was also chosen for the box cover of The Gothic Tarot and I think it works quite well to represent the entire deck.
Ever doubted that The Gothic Tarot would be finished one day?
The creative process was long and tedious, but now that it's done I am very pleased with the result. However, once the artwork and design of the deck was completed, we ran into a slew of complications and delays getting the decks manufactured. We had to have the first two thousand decks reprinted twice because they were printed too dark, and then the cards were cut incorrectly. When we approached two other card manufacturers, they refused the job for religious reasons, because they thought Tarot cards were evil. I never realized just how many ignorant people there were before we began this project. After almost a six month delay, we got the major problems straightened out, but we still found problems with the collation of a few of the decks.
Do you know in which countries exactly your set is used. Are there any orders from countries you've never expected that people know of it, for example Swasiland or the Fidji Islands?
We've really just begun to market the deck, but the response has been amazing. Outside of the U.S., we've sold decks to Canada, England, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malta, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. That's just in the past 6 months.
On what are you working at the moment?
Currently I am working on 12 new paintings for the "Born of the Night" 2004 Gothic Fantasy Calendar. Aside from my involvement with Dark Realms Magazine, I am also in the process of putting together an art book that will feature all of my Gothic works.
What are your plans for the future?
Four big projects are waiting in the wings... First, I will begin producing a series of new music CDs with my new band Nox Arcana. We plan to release our debut album, Darklore Manor, which is based on a haunted mansion with a dark history, in the next few months. Then, I will be busy writing, illustrating and putting together a new collection of gothic short stories for the sequel to our book Tales from the Dark Tower. Somewhere down the road I will be working on putting together a Gothic-adventure computer game, then finally I have plans for a movie or two.
Did you check what the tarot is telling you about these plans?
No, but darkness always seems to be looming on the horizon and I'm sure it's in the cards for me.