Type tart cards

Type tart cards

Tart cards are the means by which many London prostitutes advertise their services. Step into almost any central London phone box and you can contemplate up to 80 cards inviting you to be tied, teased, spanked or massaged.

Even if a police crackdown, the internet and the increasing use of mobile phones suggest their days are numbered, tart cards are still so pervasive they are now regarded as items of accidental art and have something of a cult following. Once on the periphery of design, tart cards have influenced the work of many mainstream artists such as Royal Academician Tom Phillips and Sex Pistols designer Ray and Nils Stevenson.


In conjunction with St Bride Library (the world’s foremost printing and graphic arts library) and Type, Wallpaper* asked designers – from students to superstars – to find the tart hiding in every type and create their own graphic numbers.

450 cards in all

They were shown at KK Outlet, London from 22nd to 29th June.

In among this plethora of brilliant, witty graphic designs we would like to highlight the serious issue that lies at the heart of the world of tart cards – the plight of trafficked women in the sex industry. It is a subject touched eloquently on by Mike Dempsey of Studio Dempsey, who is a volunteer at the Helen Bamber Foundation which helps rebuild lives broken by human rights violations. While our exhibition is an ode to the graphic qualities of the tart card phenomena, Dempsey’s design is a pertinent reminder of the sinister world that lies beneath every card.

Above is Mike Dempsey’s contribution to the project, below is what he wrote in his accompanying letter.

Dear Art Director, Wallpaper*

I am unsure if you were aware of my work with the Helen Bamber Foundation or if your request for me to produce a card for this project was a pure fluke?

When I read the brief my first inclination was to say no because the whole issue of prostitution rings a different bell for me.

For the past three years I have volunteered my time to the HBF in order to help them create a greater awareness of the plight of trafficked women in the sex industry. A very high proportion of all prostitutes in the UK have been trafficked. They don’t have a voice, they are here illegally and are forced to pay back ridiculous sums of money to their traffickers. If they attempt to escape – well, I won’t go in to details but believe me it is horrendous.

So you see, what seems to be a lighted and even frivolous brief on the surface is actually a horrid world of fear, rape and violence. It is a topic that I can’t approach lightly.

So with all that preamble I enclose my contribution for this project. It is uncompromising and I’m sure will not fit comfortably with all the typographical wit that no doubt both you and St Brides were hoping for, but I do hope you will feature it to help give a voice to the many women enslaved in this sinister world.

Mike Dempsey

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