International Icon Tarot by Robin Ator

Review by Mark McElroy


Not so long ago, in a review of the Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot, I posed the question: “How many versions of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) cards do we really need?”


Today, I know the answer to that question. You need at least one more version in your collection: the International Icon Tarot.


In the International Icon Tarot, artist Robin Ator recasts the familiar RWS images in the style of international signage. You’ve seen characters like these a thousand times – they’re the same generic human figures with round, faceless heads and blunt limbs who have been directing you to exits and toilets and crosswalks for decades.


In addition to the angels, archetypes, people, and animals in this deck, all settings, objects, symbols, and even suit markers have been graphically streamlined and visually simplified. This reduction of detail to the simplest possible elements has an intriguing side-effect: since we’re already conditioned to read, at a glance, international signage, as soon as we confront Robin’s images, we’re inclined to pause and ask, “What instruction is this sign giving me?”


As result, the icons in this quirky, colorful deck often point the way to ideas and insights that their more detailed counterparts cannot.


Surprising Utility, Enhanced Readability

I’ve been using the International Icon Tarot (IIT) for ages. The printed deck became available in March 2004, but Robin posted all seventy-eight cards to the web many, many months earlier. Many of us with the Orphalese Tarot software have been shuffling, dealing, and reading with Robin’s cards for some time. As a result, we’re already familiar with the benefits of working with the IIT.


Less Spooky.

In my experience, people not familiar with Tarot are easily intimidated by it. As most anyone who reads for the public will tell you, there’s a certain amount of hand-holding to be done whenever the RWS Devil or Death card appears. The International Tarot, with its bright colors and engaging images, reduces the spookiness of cards like these without sacrificing their symbolic integrity.


Compare, for example, the Universal RWS Devil with the IIT Devil:





In readings I’ve done across the country, an appearance by the RWS Devil never fails to elicit a gasp among the uninitiated. The IIT Devil, on the other hand, prompts, at worst, the remark “That’s kinda creepy,” and, at best, a genuine curiosity about the meaning of the card.


This alone is a good reason for working with the IIT…but muting the shock value of the more potentially frightening cards isn’t the only benefit this deck offers.


No Nudity.

When reading in corporate settings or when reading for young children , nudity – even the RWS variety, in which genitalia are represented by a two strategically-placed curved lines – can be problematic. By contrast, while certain figures in the IIT suggest nudity, the more abstract nature of the artwork greatly reduces the chance that anyone would find the cards offensive. Consider, for example, the IIT Lovers and Star (at top):


No Ethnic Bias.


While Caucasian clients have little problem seeing themselves in the RWS images, there’s no denying that the RWS, on the whole, is “mighty white.”


The IIT figures come in a variety of colors. The generic nature of the figures encourages projection and facilitates the process of “seeing yourself” reflected in the card, whatever your race. (The universal appeal of the images is further enhanced by the fact that many of the human figures may be perceived as uni-sexual, making it easier for both men and women to identify with the character on the card.)


Broader Possible Range of Interpretation.


Many readers will be aware of Mary Greer’s research project on Tarot and emotion, which asked readers to assign specific emotions to each of the Tarot’s seventy-eight images. I participated in that study and, in many cases, my ultimate conclusion about the emotional tone of a card was driven by a central character’s facial expression.


Because the IIT figures have no faces, we must depend on a different set of emotional cues, including posture, placement within the image, and color. When working with clients unfamiliar with tarot, I’ve found they project a much broader range of emotions onto the IIT’s abstracted characters. These include emotions that would often be ruled out by the expressions on the faces of the more traditional figures.


Compare, for example, the Universal RWS and IIT Five of Swords:



Probably as a result of his facial expression, most people sense the character on the RWS version has committed some act that the expense of the other characters on the card. Clients working with the IIT, however, have surprised me with a variety of alternative readings. “He’s helping gather up the swords the others lost in battle,” one client said. “He’s calling out to the others, telling them they’ve dropped their swords without noticing it,” said another.


A Timeless Setting.


Some people readily identify with the pseudo-Medieval setting of the RWS (I’m one of them, in fact). Others, however, are put off by Pixie Smith’s penchant for people in gowns, tights, and animal skin boots…and they welcome the more abstract setting in which the IIT’s images are cast.


Thorns among the Roses


So: I’m an enthusiastic user of the International Icon Tarot, and I continue to use it when reading for the public and for myself. It’s a versatile, practical deck, and I recommend it highly. There are, however, a few issues I should mention here.


The Flimsy Packaging.


Thank goodness the cards themselves are made of sturdier stuff than the box they come in! The cardboard container is wafer-thin, and, despite the fact I’ve handled it with kid gloves, the tabs on my boxtop are falling off after just three weeks of use.


The Little White Book.


There’s good information here about the reasoning and motivation behind the deck, but the majority of the booklet is dedicated to repeating the same, tired divinatory meanings we’ve all seen a thousand times. Given that the traditional meanings of the core RWS images are so widely documented, I wish Robin Ator had told us more about the history of the deck, its inception, its creation…or even something more about the Happy Squirrel.


Who's the Happy Squirrel, you ask? If you thought controversy raged over the extra Magus cards in one version of the Thoth deck, wait until people start turning up the Happy Squirrel card, included with the IIT, in their readings. Diane Wilkes instantly recognized the Happy Squirrel as an inside joke: a reference to an old Simpson's episode. It's clearly a gag, but I can already hear the questions: Is he meant to be used? Set aside? Should he come between Judgment and the World, or, like the Fool, does the Happy Squirrel frolic outside the normal sequence of the trumps? (For those who care: technically, according to the episode guide, he's Trump XXIII.)

Seriously: you’d think Happy Squirrel might at least rate a mention in the LWB – but he doesn’t. And that’s a shame, since that kind of info might make the LWB a more engaging and useful read.


The Tarot for the Masses?


A final note: while I’m intrigued by all things Tarot, my partner, Clyde, can best be described as “tarot tolerant.” Clyde has never once found any tarot images particularly appealing. Shown a card from a random deck – even a popular one, like the RWS or the Thoth – Clyde would have no idea from which deck the card was taken.


I found it interesting, then, when Clyde seemed genuinely engaged by the International Icon Tarot. Early on, I showed him the IIT Five of Pentacles, and he launched into “story mode” without hesitation: “Oh, see, there are two people, and it’s snowing, but this guy in back – the one on the crutches – is telling the discouraged one in front, ‘Hey, let’s go inside the church – it’s warmer in there.’”


I was floored.


Since then, in addition to remembering the name of this deck, Clyde has characterized it as “that Tarot for people who aren’t Tarot people.”


Frankly? I think he may be right.


You can read another review of this deck here.


To see more images and/or order the International Icon Tarot from the artist, click here.

To get a free online reading with this deck, click here.


Mark McElroy is the author of Putting the Tarot to Work (Llewellyn, 2004), a quirky, irreverent book that positions tarot as a visual brainstorming tool for business. The sequel, Putting the Tarot to Bed (Llewellyn, October 2004), applies the same brainstorming techniques love, sex, and relationships. Currently Mark is working on The Idea Deck: A Brainstorming Tarot (Llewellyn, March 2005) and Putting the Tarot to Test: An Experimental Approach to Tarot (Llewellyn, June 2005). He can be reached through his professional website and/or his  personal website.

Images of the International Icon Tarot © 2004 Robin Ator
Image from the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA.  Copyright by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  Further reproduction prohibited.
Review © 2004 Mark McElroy
Page © 2004 Diane Wilkes