1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Satire on wheels

March 6, 2011

Jacques Tilly in Dusseldorf builds some of the cheekiest carnival floats in the country. His enormous, 3D caricatures poke fun at the most powerful people - and have been known to influence political decisions.

Jacques Tilly repairs a carnival float depicting Chancellor Angela Merkel
Jacques Tilly enjoys making fun of authority figuresImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He has just pulled an all-nighter, but doesn't seem tired at all. Jacques Tilly walks through the warehouse with an impish grin on his face and takes a look at the smaller floats, which still smell of fresh paint.

A singing eggplant holding a microphone or a pink lion next to a cake - most of the motifs are relatively tame. But that is just the part of the Dusseldorf warehouse that is open to the public.

Tilly's caricatures are kept behind closed doors, guarded like a state secret. Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg announced his resignation on Tuesday, just two days before the official start of the carnival celebrations.

Breaking news

Carnival float maker Jacques Tilly
Floats are kept secret until they debut on Carnival MondayImage: DW

Tilly won't reveal exactly how the plagiarism scandal surrounding Guttenberg will be presented in the big parade on Carnival Monday.

"Of course, it's safe to assume that a few of the hot political candidates at the moment will probably make an appearance in the parade," admitted the 47-year-old float maker. "It would be a disgrace if we didn't make a float about Guttenberg!"

Tilly and his team are committed to keeping the floats in Monday's parade as up-to-date as possible. He owes it to the revelers to make sure "no cold coffee is rolling down Dusseldorf's streets," as he put it.

Even if big news breaks on Sunday night, Tilly says he'll work through the night caricaturize it in larger-than-life plastic form by Monday morning.

Carnival float by Jacques Tilly
Tilly took the Catholic Church to task in 2009Image: grossplastiken.de

Freedom to jest

Tilly made his first float back in 1983. He took on the side job to pay for his Communication Design studies in Essen. In those days, the float designs were revealed to the press ahead of Carnival Monday. Sometimes he was forced to alter particularly provocative designs - like one that depicted then Chancellor Helmut Kohl as a naked indigenous South American.

In 2000, the Dusseldorf Carnival Committee had had enough: They ruled that the floats should stay under wraps until the parade on Carnival Monday. Jacques Tilly sometimes receives nasty mail after the parades from those offended by the irreverence of his floats.

He's often been threatened with lawsuits, but "the courts in Germany uphold the 'jester's' license, freedom of speech, and artistic freedom," said Tilly.

The artist's jester's license means that, for him, nothing is holy - neither politics, nor religion. He has scoffed at Islamic suicide bombers and depicted Catholic leaders as witch-hunters or anti-Semites.

"Religious feelings are supposed to be especially valuable, but I don't agree with that," the float maker said. "All human feelings are valuable, so of course religious feelings can be satirized too. They often cause a lot of damage - like in the [Danish] cartoon controversy."

Carnival float by Jacques Tilly
The signs on the caricatures read "reality" and "cliche"Image: grossplastiken.de

Politicians are watching

When caricatures of the Islamic Prophet Mohamed in a Danish newspaper led to violent protests throughout the Muslim world in 2006, Jacques Tilly took a clear stance. On one of the Carnival floats that year, he placed a black coffin engraved with the words "Freedom of speech."

The only boundaries Tilly respects are the ones he sets himself.

"There are things I would never do, like make fun of victims," he said.

Tilly's provocations have even been a help to some victims. Two years ago, one float portrayed Jürgen Rüttgers, then the prime minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, destroying a cello. The instrument belonged to a musician who had been an advocate for the homeless.

The scene was a conspicuous criticism of the state government's decision to cut financial aid to the homeless.

"Prime Minister Jürgen Rüttgers saw the float and on Ash Wednesday, the money was returned," said Tilly with a smile. "That was the first time that a carnival float didn't just make fun of politics, but actually helped make politics - though that's an exception."

Author: Alexandra Scherle / kjb

Editor: Toma Tasovac

Skip next section Explore more