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Card Deck Project Features Local Gay Men

by Matthew S. Bajko

"Paper Dolls" card creator Nick Aitken holds some of his cards
"Paper Dolls" card creator Nick Aitken holds some of his cards  (Source:Kelly Sullivan)

The idea was sparked three years ago when local photographer and stylist Nick Aitken photographed his friend Andrew Wedge as the Six of Hearts from a deck of cards. The resulting portrait led to a series of 12, and a client of Aitken's at Brody Salon in the Castro remarked he should create a complete set of 54 playing cards.

So Aitken recruited 52 gay men from the Bay Area he had met over the years to pose as either idealized military officers, circus performers, royals, or Dixieland denizens representing a different numbered card in the four suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades. Instead of two joker cards, he devised two wild cards featuring lesbian friends of his, Megan Penrose and his co-worker Heather Annaleice Young.

"They are very fancy and very dreamlike. They are supposed to be fun, but also very eerie and dark," said Aitken of the portraits.

The full set, called "Paper Dolls: A Deck of Playing Cards," includes a 55th card depicting Aitken dressed as a one-eyed pirate. He will publicly debut the entire set of cards at an exhibit opening Thursday night in the Castro.

"I wanted to take people in my life who have inspired me and create this character that existed in the past," explained Aitken, who did all the grooming, styling, photography, and editing for the images, which each feature a unique background he created digitally. "There is lots of lace, glitter, flowers."

At 3.5x5 inches the cards are twice the size of a normal set of cards and are more similar to a pack of Tarot cards. Aitken has tried using the deck to play a game of cards but acknowledged they were "harder to handle."

David Haase, who posed as the Two of Hearts prior to his moving several years ago to Provincetown, where he bartends and now lives year round, returned this week to help Aitken mount the show.

"I think it is pretty amazing," Haase told the Bay Area Reporter as he helped unpack the portraits.

For 27 years Aitken, 48, has lived in the city, where his mother and grandparents were born. He grew up in Campbell in the South Bay and worked as a model in his teens, then studied fashion photography at the Academy of Art for four years. He fell short of earning a degree but was hired to teach fashion photography at the school.

He works at the Castro salon four days a week, following in a family tradition. His grandmothers were hairdressers, his twin sister is a stylist, and his younger brother is a barber.

"Three of five siblings all cut hair," he noted.

On his time off Aitken worked on the Paper Dolls project, scouring thrift stores and prop shops to find the right attire for his models. He rented many of the wardrobes from the A.C.T. costume shop.

Over a six-month period, Aitken created one portrait every three days. He landed on the name "Paper Dolls" because it recalls his playing with antique dolls and toys as a boy.

"I dressed them up like dolls," he said of the subjects depicted on the cards. "They are my dolls."

Many of the men come from the art world and work as singers, actors, models, or dancers. Among them are drag queens Peaches Christ, the Queen of Hearts, and Suppositori Spelling, the Queen of Spades.

The only politician in the deck is San Francisco mayoral candidate Mark Leno. The former supervisor and state lawmaker is the Five of Hearts, adorned as a western sheriff whose holster bears a dahlia, the official city flower of San Francisco, rather than a gun.

"I feel like he has been a really big inspiration to me and I think he will be a great mayor hopefully," said Aitken, referring to Leno's bid to win the mayoral election in 2019.

Each deck of cards, which comes with a brass key attached, costs $75. Individual photos of the cards can be purchased in various sizes, ranging in price from $750 for a 12x16 print to $1,750 for a 30x49 print.

They will be available for purchase at the opening show and party being held from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, September 28 at The Academy, the new retail shop and single-chair barbershop at 2166 Market Street.

The event is free and open to the public.

For more information about Aitken's work, or to order the card deck online, visit


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