Illustrator Sofie Birkin’s new Erotic Tarot deck is a sensual esoteric trip
On catching up with Sofie, we discuss her career trajectory and what it was like to create an erotic illustration series without being allowed to show genitalia.
- Joey Levenson
- 1 November 2021
Since being on our Ones to Watch in 2020, Denver-based British illustrator Sofie Birkin has become a treasured favourite of ours. With the release of her beautiful new Erotic Tarot deck, there’s been a clear progression and growing evolution of Sofie’s work that made us more than excited to step back in to her world. Since our last time together, it seems much has changed in Sofie’s realm. “The pandemic created a pretty major shift for me,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I found that because so many companies were unable to schedule photoshoots, they were reaching out to illustrators instead and my workload more than doubled almost overnight.” Sofie being booked and busy is not something we can say we’re surprised at – her phenomenal talent is a magnet for phenomenal clientele. “I felt incredibly lucky, obviously, but it did get overwhelming with my day job as an in-house illustrator at a marketing agency,” Sofie explains. Here, she veers more towards caution, emphasising the destructive nature of working to the point of exhaustion. “I was pretty routinely working 65-80 hours a week,” she says. “So eventually I took a leap of faith and quit that job and went freelance full-time.” Now, as talented as ever, Sofie is swiftly moving into her creative prime.
Over the last year, it’s clear that Sofie has been working on some pretty great stuff. In fact, the genesis of Erotic Tarot could even be traced back to Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults, a book by sex educator and artist Ruby Rare that Sofie collaborated on with her illustrations last year. “That was a really fulfilling experience, and it made it a lot easier to be holed up in my apartment,” she says. As for this year, Sofie’s listed off clients such as Nike, Adidas, Apple, Royal Mail, Facebook, and The New York Times, as well as building her own room at the interactive art experience Meow Wolf Denver. “I’m so relieved and grateful to have consistent work and income, but it’s definitely been a struggle to make time for my personal work,” she admits. “I’m sure a lot of illustrators will relate to the bind of getting to a point in your career when you’re requested for your style and so sometimes feel a little restricted in your ability to develop it, but I’ve been making small changes with gradients and outlines so that it’s still recognisable but doesn’t get stagnant.”
The Erotic Tarot feels far from stagnant. “This was hands down one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on, and I was so thrilled to be asked to do it,” Sofie gushes. “Laurence King reached out to me with the idea of creating an erotic tarot deck and it was a really collaborative process between me, their team, and the writers: The Fickle Finger of Fate.” Taking the pitch of making an inclusive, contemporary and graphic erotic tarot deck, Sofie worked diligently to illustrate the collection whilst paying homage to the classic Rider-Waite deck. “We created a huge collaborative spreadsheet that compiled all the information we could find about each card and spitballed ideas back and forth,” she explains.
“One of my favourite things about it was incorporating elements from Rider-Waite, like the striped shirts on the lesbian couple in The Chariot matching the Sphinxes on the original card, or the little white dog in The Fool making an appearance, or the tattoos on the guy in The Tower being illustrations from the original card.” Using her self-described “graphic and contemporary” style, Sofie worked on contrasting attention to detail with “deliberately naïve shapes,” and vibrant colours that boosted each card’s strong compositions. “We found out pretty early on we wouldn’t be able to have anything featuring genitals printed,” she reveals. “So at first I was a little worried about the potential limitations of that, but when that option is taken out you have to really focus on creating eroticism with gesture and expression, which can be so much more evocative.”
Not all the cards are that sexual, however. Many of them are about intimacy, as well as self-empowerment and sexual confidence. On her three favourite cards of the deck, Sofie draws first on The Moon. “I think it really captures the themes we wanted to communicate by embracing imagination and dreaming, which are major themes in most of my personal work as well,” she says. Touching on the themes of her wider work, Sofie also loves The Emperor, a card which harks back to Sofie’s never-ending dedication to queer representation. “I pushed for our Emperor to be a trans-masc person because I wanted to convey a really seductive, non-toxic masculinity,” she says. “They’re in control, but they’re not controlling.” According to Sofie, however, the sexiest card goes to Page of Wands. As for romance? That’s Page of Cups, which is “all about embracing new ideas, trusting your intuition, expressing yourself,” Sofie explains. “It’s such a sweet, romantic card. I liked this visual of a woman alone on a beach, just fully leaning into her desires.”
Now, Sofie feels content with where she currently stands in her illustration career. “I am hoping to make more time to explore mediums outside of digital illustration for my personal art next,” she tells us. “My background is in product and fashion design and I love creating fabric art, so that’s where my goals are centred.” Atop of fabric art, expect to see more murals of Sofie’s pop up in the future too. There’s no stopping her talent.
Sofie Birkin: The Star (Copyright © Sofie Birkin, 2021)