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Brussels cartoonist: 'I gave Tintin the expression on my face'

Danish illustrator Søren Juhl responded to the Brussels attacks with a moving, viral image of Tintin that reflected his own heart. He says images can move the masses, but he's wary of crossing a line with his art.

DW: What was your first thought when you learned of the Brussels attack?

Søren Juhl: I heard about the explosions on Twitter and I thought that it may be another terrorist attack, though I couldn't know for sure. We knew from the events that happened in Paris that this might be terrorism again. And unfortunately within a short time, we knew that this was the case.

Along with the attacks in Paris and on Charlie Hebdo, it touches me when these innocent civilians are hit.

As an illustrator, I'm sure it's natural for you to grab your pencil when you experience emotion. In what way can an image express more than words?

For me as an artist, I'm a visual guy. With an illustration done within just a few seconds, you can tell much more than you ever could writing a few lines about what you want to express. I have a better way of speaking my mind through my pen than explaining how I feel.

Your illustration of Tintin, but also the popular illustration French caricaturist Plantu created in response to the Brussels attacks, are both very simple. How is it that simplicity can have such a strong impact on people?

As a kid, I grew up with cartoons. I think that most people experienced cartoons through their childhoods and also as adults. When I heard of the explosions at the airport and then the explosion at the metro station, we knew that this was a major attack. So I thought about how I could find something that matters to the Belgian people. When I was growing up, I read a lot of Tintin, Gaston and Lucky Luke.

And I thought that Tintin is a character that people can relate to. He fights the bad guys, and he's the good guy. And he's human. You only see some sad eyebrows and a small teardrop and you express so much more than words.

I really feel that the expression I gave Tintin is the same expression on my face.

Your illustration of Tintin was mentioned in Germany's "Rolling Stone" and other media and retweeted many times. When your piece of art goes viral, do you feel that is gains significance - or perhaps becomes trivialized?

It depends how people react to it. Some of the users obviously just retweet. But I hope they carry it with them and think about it. I've also gotten replies from people who thank me for doing this and thank me for supporting the victims of these terrible events.

Some people "just" retweet and others quote my tweet and add their personal reflections. For me personally, it feels like when a singer is on stage and the audience starts to sing along to the refrain from his song. I feel the same way when people respond to my illustrations.

How political are your cartoons?

I live in a small community in the countryside in Denmark and I've used my skills for local political events. We had to fight for a public school which was being shut down in my small town. People were writing a lot of letters and Facebook is used a lot. So I've done some cartoons that explain my view of the situation as a tax-payer.

Søren Juhl, Copyright: Søren Juhl

Søren Juhl is a self-taught illustrator and graphic designer

Beyond local politics, Denmark is of course no stranger to extremism. We think back to the Mohammad cartoon crisis in 2005, when 12 Mohammad cartoons were published in Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" and unleashed violent protests around the world. When you respond as an artist to global events, do you feel there are limitations to what you may express?

I do think about how this may be received and what the result may be for me personally. But after the Mohammad crisis in Denmark, the illustrators live a different life today with security guards. That is the back side of it.

I see myself as a small, unknown illustrator. I live in a small-town community far away from Copenhagen and somehow I can still reach a broad audience with these illustrations.

When I watched the news last night, I saw how Danish people were going to the Belgian embassy and laying down flowers to express their sympathy. I don't have the option of going to Copenhagen. So I see my illustrations [as] my way of laying down flowers.

In your work, do you feel like you have to be careful of how it may be perceived by extremists?

Yes. I'm sad to say that, but I am. I'm personally split in this question. On the one hand, I want to fight for our democracy and our values. We have freedom of speech and we can go and vote. And I think those are key values for a society like ours in Europe. I think we should treasure them and fight for them.

On the other hand, I have a wife and two children and it frightens me to think they should go after me. I don't give in, but on the other hand, I want to be there for my kids. I would never draw Mohammad. That would cross an invisible boundary and risk more than I would like to.

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