He is on al-Qaeda's death list and in his garden the Swedish security police is keeping watch around the clock. Despite all this, the Swedish artist Lars Vilks accepts his destiny with equanimity. Sappho.dk has visited the man who refused to go underground.
It is Friday afternoon in early March. The sun shines and the car glides slowly through the flat countryside of Skåne in southern Sweden.
I am going to visit Lars Vilks. The man who enraged Muslims because he drew a picture of their prophet as a dog.
I have a lot to ask him. What is it like to be on al-Qaeda's hit list and have a security detail in your garden? Has he had any regrets after publishing his drawings in 2007?
"Lars Vilks, Artist"
But first I need to find him. And that is surprisingly easy.
The Swedish Yellow Pages make no attempt to hide his address: "Lars Vilks, Artist" it says loud and clear, followed by city, street name and number. If you want the GPS coordinates, you can also get them.
So I am now driving along Brunnbyvägen outside Nyhamnsläge – a tiny village north of Helsingborg.
Neighbors are far between and besides empty fields there is little to see. It is difficult to understand why al-Qaeda has marked this place on their maps.
On the right-hand side of the road an isolated house comes into view. I turn into a small dirt road that leads up to the house.
The guards in the garden
As soon as I leave the paved road, I spot him – a big security guard in uniform who is writing down my license plate number. A camper is parked behind him. That is where the guard and his colleagues sleep and eat. For they protect Vilks around the clock.
The camper and its permanent occupants are the Swedish government's response to the growing threats against the controversial man from Skåne.
I get out of the car, say hello to the guard and hear footsteps behind me. To my astonishment, a huge, silver-gray Saab is suddenly parked behind my car. I have no idea where it came from. I neither saw nor heard it coming.
The two men in the car turn out to be from the Swedish security police, Säpo.
They are friendly and obliging and ask to see my ID. They also ask for details about my appointment. How long do I expect it will take? Have I met Lars before? Etc.
A familiar face?
My answers appear satisfactory and one of the men tells me to follow him. We wade through what can best be described as a puddle and reach a ramshackle house.
The Säpo officer walks up a flight of stairs leading to the front door. He knocks, and after a brief moment, Lars Vilks appears.
He is wearing blue jeans, a sweater and heavy black sunglasses. His gray hair sticks out in all directions and looks like something that has long been in need of a comb. Other than that the 65-year-old artist looks healthy and agile.
"Is that a familiar face?" asks the Säpo officer and points at me.
"It certainly is," answers Vilks and invites me inside.
Home and workshop
On closer inspection of Vilks' house, it turns out that he fully lives up to the image of the eccentric artist living happily in the midst of chaos and rarely tidying up. In addition to that he is a bachelor.
As a result the small house is crammed with books, drawings and paintings. Books lie in heaps on the floor and are stacked in bookshelves along the walls. Not to mention brushes and tubes of paint in all colors. I understand that the house serves as both home and workshop.
It is in this room under the low-hanging crystal chandelier with its crooked lampshades that Vilks produces his traffic circle dogs – the very drawings of the Prophet that radically changed his life.
I bend down to take off my muddy boots.
"There's no need," says Vilks. "It's not very clean here."
So I find a vacant corner in the living room's well-worn sofa. Vilks sits down on a kitchen chair and declares himself ready to be interviewed.
Welcome to my creation!
Actually, it should not surprise me now that I've read a bit about Vilks' concept of art.
Still I am a bit surprised when halfway through our conversation he points out that I am now an official part of his artistic creation, i.e. his drawing of the prophet dog that got the ball rolling.
The drawing is only a small part of his gesamtkunstwerk, he explains.
All those who have responded to the drawing are also included. And now I am sitting here and interviewing him about it. Consequently, I have become a part of his work just like those who have tried to kill him and the security guards outside. We are all in the same boat – we are all a part of Vilks' work.
Art for freedom
It sounds as if you planned it all from the start. Did you anticipate this development?
"No, absolutely not," laughs Vilks. "Coincidences have played a role."
"Many have made such drawings before me – without creating much of a stir. My drawing was not even intended for publication in a newspaper. I really thought that it could be kept within the safe environment of the art world."
Are you proud of your creation?
"I won't say that I'm proud. But I think it's an interesting work. With very few artistic effects I've managed to create a piece of art that expresses the essence of multiculturalism versus free speech. Through my art I have always worked for greater freedom – including freedom of expression – so I am very pleased."
Had to flee from Tensta
Since the publication of his drawings back in 2007, threats against him have multiplied. He has been physically attacked during lectures and two Muslim immigrants have tried to kill him by setting fire to his house.
Not to mention a number of people arrested by the security service before they could implement their assassination plans.
The latest episode took place on March 1st 2012, when Vilks was to attend a lecture. The event took place in the art hall in Tensta – a suburb of Stockholm with many immigrants. It only took moments before Lars Vilks was recognized.
Several times a bunch of angry young men entered the art hall in an attempt to get hold of him. More young men flocked outside. Eventually Vilks' security guards evacuated him.
Stockholm bomber was the last straw
But is was back in 2010 that the Intelligence Service took the decision to provide their compatriot with guards around the clock. It was just after a suicide bomber had blown himself up in central Stockholm.
The bomber left a recorded threat to the Swedish people mentioning Lars Vilks.
Two additional episodes had made the threat against Vilks very clear.
In a speech the Iranian President had expressed his desire to see Vilks sent off to a place of no return and al-Qaeda in Iraq had issued fatwa promising a reward of $ 150,000 to whoever would slit the Swede's throat.
This made the Intelligence Service respond.
All will be well
What is it like to live with death threats and security guards round the clock?
"The threats are of course a relatively new experience. But you can actually learn to live with them. Those who threaten rarely make good on their threats."
"Besides, I'm quite optimistic by nature. I believe that all will be well if you keep your cool and think strategically. However, it is clear that some practical things have become more difficult. It's hard to improvise with security guards in tow, so things must be planned in advance."
Do you regret that you ever put pen to paper?
"No, I have no regrets. One shouldn't think like that. As an artist one must accept the consequences of one's actions. History is full of artists whose fate was far worse than mine."
Refused to go underground
But the security situation is not only cumbersome for Vilks, it is also costly for the Swedish state, which was why the Security Service had preferred a different solution.
"They wanted me to change identity and go underground. But I didn't find that realistic. As an artist and lecturer I cannot be anonymous. It would be too high a price to pay.
"In the beginning I had a hide-away, where I could stay nights. But that became too unpractical, so now I sleep here, surrounded by alarms and all kinds of electronic hardware."
The alarm systems that Säpo has installed are not quite infallible, says Vilks. Now and again they are triggered because some cat or other animal has entered the premises.
Artist with an axe
Clearly Lars Vilks is not the type that would overdramatize his situation. But when the alarm goes off and he lies asleep on the first floor, he admits that thoughts go through his head. "One cannot help speculating if one should go downstairs to see what's up," he says with a grin.
To make the decision a little easier, he always has a big axe by his side – even as we sit here talking.
"It has a good swing," he says, and demonstrates how it is done."
Good news and bad news
What do you think your life will look like in five years?
"It's hard to say but I do not think they will manage to kill me. Today, terrorism is based largely on amateurs. When they tried to burn down my house, they set fire to themselves, etc. On the other hand they have become less predictable," says Vilks and look out the window.
"You could say that there is good news and bad news about the future."
Art goes on
In any case, he intends to go on expanding his creation.
He proved that the other day, when his lecture at the University of Karlstad was interrupted. A group of Muslim men started shouting threats and throwing eggs.
One of the eggs survived the flight and Vilks took it home as a souvenir and wants to show it to me.
"Here it is," he shouts from his small kitchen. A moment later he produces it. It has been emptied of content and been embellished with a fine little drawing of Muhammad.
You continue where you left off?
The interview is drawing to a close because a journalism student from Gothenburg has announced his arrival. He would also like to learn more about the world according to Vilks. For now, however, it is the student that is being questioned by the guards outside. Has he met Vilks before? How long does he expect the interview will take?
The young man probably does not know yet. But he has already become a part of Vilks' work."
Get your copy of Lars Vilks' world famous picture
of Muhammad in the traffic circle – and support Lars Vilks and free speech.
The Free Press Society has printed a limited edition of 1000 signed and numbered by the artist. See it here.