For this week’s edition of Tarot Talk, we catch up with healer, illustrator, tattoo artist, Small Spells tarot deck creator, HOI Aries Birthday Box collaborator, and all around magical human Rachel Howe—a.k.a Small Spells—on how she first got hooked on tarot, her brand-new store opening in LA, and what she has brewing in the future for Small Spells.
How were you first called to Tarot? I first learned tarot relatively recently, about 6 years ago. My former boss had gifted me a session with a well-renowned tarot reader in NYC, and from the moment we started, she was telling me that I was psychic, intuitive, a mystic, and had to learn how to read tarot. She mentored me for a summer, teaching me about the cards and how to read them—it was really special. I still have the recording of that reading and in it she’s telling me that I remind her of her younger self, she initiated me with this magic wand stick she had, she told me I would go deeper than she’s able to, or wants to—that I would go where others are scared to go. At the time it sounded like a nice story to me, but now I can see more of what she was talking about, almost as I grow into who she was seeing.
Wow, that’s awesome. So, how did you go from that experience to then creating the Small Spells deck? I quickly got into reading tarot for people after learning it, since once your friends hear you’re doing readings, they all want one [laughs]. I read for a few years using the Rider-Waite deck, which I still love. Then, I got the idea to make drawings for a deck, but once I started working on it, it was such an intense endeavor that I had to pull back on actively working on it. I spent a year going deeper into and fully processing the cards, and actually by doing so was able to clean up my own personal messes, as a preparation for doing the channeling work of making the card imagery. Then, I spent about 6 months doing the drawings and writing for the cards and the guidebook. I knew before I started that this was something I had to do, that it was supported by my guides/the Universe, and that it would save me financially, allowing me to go deeper into working full time in art and healing.
What’s your favorite card in your deck, why? The Death card. When it shows up it means that exciting evolution and transformation is happening, that you are pushing into unknown or scary territories, which is necessary for growth, and that you are open to things changing, which is also a positive thing. It’s an acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of life, which to me is more fulfilling than a life that is static, since it allows for creativity and freedom of expression.
Where did the name Small Spells come from? I came up with it before I even had a brand. I had been making artwork using text, little phrases, and all kinds of occult or metaphysically-based illustrations. Small Spells was one of the phrases, and I thought it would be nice as a brand name, if I ever had one. It’s sort of humble, and the idea is that small spells can be more consistent than big spells, and that consistency is what creates reality. It’s not something special, it's something everyday, which is more powerful.
What inspired you to do separate guidebook for the deck? I thought it was really important to have my ideas and thoughts about each card as part of the package, especially since the designs are pretty minimal. I had a reason and concept behind each drawing and so I wanted to explain those. I’ve always written as well as made visual art, and I think they really belong together for me.
Recently you just launched the color version of the original B&W Small Spells deck, what inspired you to do this? When I first made the Small Spells deck, I was going to make it in color, but the color didn’t really flow out of me. I figured I could make a color version later when I felt more confident about the symbolism of color, since I didn’t want to add color arbitrarily. Earlier this year when I started working on the color version of the deck, it came out really organically, and I felt more in tune with the colors I used. I went with sort of weird combinations—kind of ugly, muted hues—really just things I liked, that I felt communicated some more useful information about the meaning of the card.
I personally love your use of color in the deck. Did anything specifically inspire you to use those colors? What does color magic mean to you? I’ve always loved color, when I was a kid I would do things like wear purple socks if I was wearing a purple shirt, but I’ve also been really uncomfortable with using it in my artwork. It has so much meaning, symbolism, and emotional association, it just always felt overwhelming. But for the deck I managed to find colors that I vibed with, and that vibed with my drawings.
How long have you been illustrating? Since I was a kid, I’ve always drawn—but when I got older I went to art school, and that’s where I really focused on drawing. After working for years in the art world, I started working more on functional design, which felt better to me, since craft feels more accessible than art. I made ceramics for a couple of years, and kind of stopped drawing. But when I started tattooing I got way back into drawing. My style changed a little, to be more minimal, as fits the hand poke tattoos. The drawings in the Small Spells tarot deck are inspired by a lot of things that I’ve always loved to look at: vintage graphic design, tattoo design, outsider art, handmade signs, etc. Drawing is so special to me because anyone and everyone can do it, it shows the individual’s hand so clearly, and it feels like a direct line between the inner thoughts of the mind to the outer description by the hand.
How long have you been doing hand poke tattoos and which came first: tattoos or Tarot? They actually came kind of at the same time. When I opened the door to healing work it all rushed in: I learned reiki and tarot around the same time, and then about a year later got more into astrology and tattoos.
I feel like hand poke tattoos are such an intimate and deeply healing process. What are your thoughts on this and what stigmas would you like to see break in the industry?
They are very intimate. The process is very slow and it’s hand to body, there’s no buffer of the machine in between. But I think getting any kind of tattoo is a really intimate experience, it's just that the typical context has been very masculine, and so any energetic or emotional exchange is usually pretty blocked, and it’s less about process and more about the end result. But outside of modern western societies, tattoos are traditionally used more ceremoniously, usually with an initiation purpose, and it serves as an aid for transformation or growth. Honestly we all just need to stop positioning mid-century patriarchal America as the standard to compare everything to, because that’s a pretty narrow and unhealthy standard. I see this with ideas about hand poke tattoos, that people view them as a lesser form of the perfection of machine tattooing, instead of just a totally different thing that has its own separate function.
How do you use both Tarot and tattooing as tools for healing? I think Tarot is incredibly healing, and even just the words we use in regular conversation can be healing as well. Literally everything can be healing if we choose it to be. I’m not as interested in predicting success for people’s careers or love lives as I am in accessing the blocks they might have to being able to be themselves fully. Everything flows from a healthy connection to the self and the purpose of the self, so that’s what I try to access in a reading. They can take care of their work and romances on their own, once they’ve become more attuned to themselves. Tattooing can also be a healing experience, but in the same way that any interaction or engagement between people has the potential to be. Tarot is a little more intentional as far as people’s willingness to be open and to change. Our energies want to heal, it's just our minds and perspectives that hold us back, so a reading can be really profound when it helps to open up minds and change rigid thought patterns.
Let’s talk about your jewelry collaboration with Tuza! How did this collab happen and what inspired each zodiac piece? Suzzan of Tuza approached me to do the collaboration and we quickly hit it off. I ended up going to Mexico City a couple of times to work on it with her and the jewelry workshop there. I’m really happy with how they all turned out. I wanted each piece to correspond to the zodiac signs, but also be general enough that anyone could wear whatever they liked. It was exciting to see how my drawings could translate to physical objects. I feel like all the imagery we used is classic Small Spells imagery; it was especially fun to incorporate my broken chain drawing. I like that it references the chain of a necklace, on a necklace, but also refers to a larger meaning of freedom and expansiveness.
What’s the best advice you have for anyone out there just getting into Tarot? I think the best way to learn is to do readings. Preferably on people you don’t know, so that you can really feel your intuition working, without any prior knowledge about the person. It’s good to read books on tarot, and discuss tarot with other people, but I think the most direct way to learn is just to start. I’ve gotten some amazing readings from absolute beginners. Tarot is an oral tradition and so talking about it in conversation, and talking with it in readings, makes the most sense to me. It can also be helpful to bolster your esoteric, symbolic, and psychological vocabulary, to assist you in giving readings, so that you feel comfortable talking about emotions and energy.
What is your beauty/self-care ritual like? I try to use only natural products on my skin and hair. I love my jade facial roller, it’s so calming to use before bed and it helps make skin look fresher. I also use a dry brush on my body, which does the same lymphatic cleansing as the jade facial roller. I don’t have a huge beauty routine, I keep it really simple and just try to use my health to look good, more than using products. An apple cider vinegar rinse once in a while is good to clarify the hair, and keep it smooth and healthy. I don’t drink alcohol, so I think that keeps skin looking young and hydrated. Since moving to LA I have to moisturize a lot more than in the humid east coast, so I use almond oil on my body after showering, and City Skin Potion by Monk Oil on my face. On my face I mostly just care about my eyebrows, if those are on point then the rest of my face can just be natural. I use Glossier Boy Brow. If I’m breaking out I use some Mario Badescu, or do an Aztec Secret clay mask. I take a lot of tinctures for various things, using herbs to treat things like stress or emotional issues, and taking those always makes me feel like I’m taking a magic potion. Also drinking water is a serious magic potion that helps everything!
Besides Tarot and tattooing, are there any other metaphysical practices/rituals that you love to work with? I use astrology in my life to help guide me. I’ve been learning more about herbs this past year, and that’s a whole huge world that I’m just starting to tap into. I would like to learn more about that so I can use it more regularly in my life and my practices. I also would like to get into breathwork more. Combining energy work with more physical healing is starting to be more appealing to me now, although the worlds of physical wellness are massive on their own. I am a reiki master, and I love doing reiki sessions, on other people or on myself. I meditate a lot, and I use that to either just calm myself and reset my energy, or I use it to access guidance and wisdom. I don’t do magic or spellwork really. I do work with intention, and I respect those practices, but I’m not good with routines or schedules or rules. Whenever there’s a materials list or a specific timing required, I kind of give up on it. I work better in a more fluid space of just using energy—props just aren’t my thing.
Tell us about your new store opening! How did this happen and what sort of services are you offering there? I needed to get an outside studio for all of my inventory and business stuff, and I thought I’d look for a storefront so I could also have open hours for people to come visit and buy things in person. I found it pretty quickly and now it’s open on the weekends! I’m going to have monthly events—pop-ups and hosting other people who make things. I would like to graduate to a bigger space where I can offer everything that I do—readings, tattoos, retail, etc. But for now it’s just a retail space for my products, and a space to host friends and colleagues. Starting small and hoping to get bigger over time!
What other projects do you currently have in the works? I am hoping to manifest a larger shop space for the future, and get more involved in the creative, spiritual, and activist communities around LA through a public space. I’m also expanding my online offerings, for everyone outside of LA, so I’m going to start a subscription astrology email newsletter, to elaborate on my Instagram horoscope posts. And I’m going to start offering online workshops on tarot and intuition, so people all over the world can access my classes. I am also working on a book proposal for a publishing company, and some other book project ideas. I might even be creating an oracle deck this year, as well!
All photos courtesy of Rachel Howe.