A work of (t)art: London’s 90s Tart Cards
We Brits may be considered the stiff upper lip of the Western world, but we do have our kinky side that often comes out of the woodwork in surprisingly public mediums. During the 90s one of the icons of London, the red phone booth, also became synonymous with forbidden pleasures due to the tart cards plastered inside.
Tart cards were a form of advertising used by call girls, prostitutes, dominatrix and all manner of naughty ladies of the night. These cards touted all sorts of forbidden pleasures, from spanking to transsexuals, and ended up becoming an accidental art, which reflected the social state of London at the time.
Up until 1984, advertising in telephone boxes was illegal, as the boxes belonged to the Post Office and thus the Government. However, when British Telecom was privatised, a loophole was created, and prostitutes moved their cards from news agents to phone boxes, where their clients could immediately make contact.
The early cards were surprisingly modest, only suggesting the type of pleasure provided, with the occasional sketch of a female form/face. This began to change in the early 90s when colour was introduced, and there seemed to be a fad for day-glo cards. Saucy humour was much in evidence, yet the cards seemed to have an unspoken rule that nipples and genitalia should be concealed (which is still often the case today).
The charm of these early cards was the poor printing and artwork, showing how little money was invested in the advertising. Not to mention that many printers would not have accepted these jobs, which allowed small back-street print-shops the chance to rake in cash.
It was rare that the women would put up their own cards, and they often hired “carders” to do so. Placing 600 cards a day could earn you up to £200, big bucks for someone with enough stamina!
In September 2001 it was made a criminal offence to display tart cards in phone boxes, which could see you convicted for up to six months in jail or a £5000 fine. Of course, this only proved to slow the rate of cards, and cause the carders to become stealthier in their business. Today, Councils strive to remove the cards often within half an hour of them being placed, and with the age of the internet, this is proving vastly uneconomical for the women.
Most of today’s cards also lack the wordplay and humour of their predecessors. They are usually glamorously tacky, featuring garish photoshopped women and eye-catching fonts.
While we do not condone prostitution we feel that this period of time was key in London’s sexual history, showing that typical British humour. Many feel the same, as there are many private collections as well as those of museums and libraries. Apparently the Wellcome Library includes one of the world’s largest collections of tart cards, which can be viewed upon request!
The stark graphics of the early tart cards was the inspiration behind our Oh You Tease retro set, which features a black and red print of bound women, whips, high heels and thigh high boots!