Dark Book Review – Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art
Review Written By Casey Douglass
In London, sex has been sold through advertising cards posted in phone boxes since the early 1980s. Tracing the history of these "tart cards" provides an opportunity to explore the real example of the evolution of vernacular design. This tour through illicit printed solicitation includes interviews with the "service providers," the marketers, "the carders," the printers, and the local authorities who have sought to control the content of the cards.
I’ve not been to London more than a couple of times, but on each occasion, it was difficult to not notice the bright colours and skin tones of the “tart cards” that plastered the insides of certain telephone boxes along certain streets. On my first visit to London, I even took a picture of one particular box because I was surprised at the glossy quality and array of colours used. Who’d have thought that more than ten years later, I’d buy a book on sale that looked at the topic from the artistic angle: Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art. (For only £3 to boot!)
The book feels nice in the hands and as you turn each page, the layout of the text and illustrations does a good job of making it a pleasant read. Although I will say one thing. If you are like me and try to read everything on the page, including the picture captions and other incidental text, don’t worry about doing that too much. A good amount of the label/quote text is actually in the main body of the text so you are just reading the same information twice. Not a big issue if you treat it more like a prolonged magazine article, but I don’t often see this in a book.
As far as the topic itself, it was truly interesting to see how the cards have evolved, the way the designs were tailored to get around various laws, even down to the way the carders stuck the cards in the phone boxes. The book also looks at how, as technology has evolved, the advertisers were able to put out higher quality adverts, but also the effect that the internet and computers has had on the art of the copy writing, which in a brief few words is that they have lost their soul or are less skilfully created.
Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art also looks at the effect of the cards on the communities in which they are found, be it as litter, the possible “corruption of innocent minds” and even the way some choose to collect them. I had to chuckle at the information that some school kids take them and use them as a collectible card game in the playground. I can totally imagine one kid saying “Ha! This one does spanking!” and his mate going “This one does Two-Way spanking!” and the cards being angrily snatched from the loser’s hand.
So in summary, Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art presents an interesting topic in an easy to read way, with insights from people involved at different stages of the process. Is it worth the RRP of £19.99. Not for me. It was readable in around 60-90 mins and I can’t see me looking back at it for reference again. It being on sale for £3 was very cheap though so I would say if you could buy it for around a tenner, that would be the sweet spot. I’d rate it 4/5.
Book Title: Tart Cards: London’s Illicit Advertising Art
Author: Caroline Archer
Publisher: Mark Batty