It can't be ruled out, but it's unlikely one would have spotted Wolfgang Tillmans 10 years ago in the T-shirt he's now wearing in his Berlin studio. The blue shirt is emblazoned with 28 yellow stars forming a circle. Ten years ago the T-shirt would have been seen as a joke – the most uncool thing imaginable, a symbol of civil servants and bureaucrats who held endless meetings to ban Tyroleans from smoking their ham in their mountain huts according to centuries-old methods, or Britons from recycling their teabags. But now that the considerable freedoms Europe also created are under threat, hipster and artist Wolfgang Tillmans is doing more than just wearing this T-shirt – he's also started a poster campaign to oppose those who support Brexit. Tillmans has designed 44 posters that can be downloaded from his website and printed for free or shared via social media. "Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Rupert Murdoch ... want Britain to leave the EU. Don't let them have their way. Have your say," he appeals in one poster. In another, he writes: "It's a question of where you feel you belong. We are the European family." Tillmans, 47, is one of the world's most important – and expensive – photographers. In the early 1990s, he moved to England, where he helped shape the look of global pop culture and art photography. In 2000, he became the first German recipient of the Turner prize, the most important honour in the British art world. In addition to his London studio, Tillmans also maintains a second large atelier in Berlin.
SPIEGEL: Mr Tillmans, you're a world-renowned photographer and artist. Aren't you concerned that your campaign will harm your caché?
Tillmans: No, because I haven't reinvented myself. My political engagement is part of my integrity as an artist.
SPIEGEL: You have taken a clear political stance with your campaign. Unambiguity and art are an awkward mix.
Tillmans: One of my favourite sentences is: art is useless. It doesn't need to fulfil a purpose, which is precisely why it's so powerful. And in my campaign, art isn't my main objective. It has become clear to me that the official campaign against Britain's exit from the EU is being conducted in completely the wrong tone and with an unattractive visual design.
SPIEGEL: What are your fellow campaigners doing wrong?
Tillmans: They don't dare to address the subject emotionally, because the EU as a whole is unpopular. No one has the courage to warmly embrace the EU. Instead, they use economic arguments. Their primary claim is that it would be better to remain. I don't think this comes close to capturing the importance of the upcoming decision. As is so often the case: in competition with populists, the mainstream is trying to score points by being rational – and ends up weaker.
SPIEGEL: The EU is unpopular in many European countries, particularly so in Britain. Why?
Tillmans: The politicians – in all countries, by the way – who ought to be behind the EU often don't support it themselves. Whenever politicians from the 28 member states meet, each then holds a press conference afterwards to praise what he or she has pushed through. But when something goes wrong, it's the EU's fault. And then Britain has Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who has been slamming the EU in his publications for more than 25 years – purely out of personal economic interest. As an ideological market capitalist, he hates all forms of competition controls and monopoly prevention. Workers' rights, such as four weeks of holiday – a minimum standard in the EU – are intolerable for Murdoch. He believes Europe is being threatened by socialism. When asked why he hates the EU so much, Murdoch responded: "That's easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice."
SPIEGEL: People always say the EU is an incredibly difficult sell. Do you agree?
Tillmans: The EU comes across as reticent – but why? Ten years ago, a telephone call from London to Paris still cost almost £2 a minute. It drove people mad! Everybody felt powerless against their mobile phone service provider: how is it possible that they can fleece me like this? The EU put an end to that. Period.
SPIEGEL: You refer to Brexit as a once-in-a-generation decision. What do you think is at stake?
Tillmans: Brexit would be a devastating signal. The biggest liberal bloc in the world is at stake. Britain's withdrawal would weaken the EU and serve as an invitation to enemies and fundamentalists like Putin and other despots to increase pressure and continue to provoke strife. That is what's at stake, and not whether British tourists will still be able to go to Berghain after Brexit.
SPIEGEL: Now that's a poster you should have made: Dear Brits, you can still go to Berghain, but it would also be nice if you would vote to stay in the EU.
Tillmans: It's precisely Europe's success that irritates its enemies. It is a matter of defending our values against an authoritarian minority that hates the fact that we have women's rights and gay and lesbian rights. It is a minority that prefers confrontation over negotiation.
SPIEGEL: Your campaign is directed primarily at young people who benefit from the EU's achievements but do very little when it comes to defending European values.
Tillmans: I was born in 1968 and I still remember the cold war. Young people today are mainly interested in self-optimisation, things like going to the gym and using Facebook. They don't have the time to get involved.
SPIEGEL: That sounds a little old.
Tillmans: It seems to me that many young people today are more conservative than their grandparents. Earlier we had Bravo in Germany, a youth magazine for both genders. That was progress. Today gendering starts with sweets for young children. Now we even have separate Kinder Surprise eggs for boys and girls.
SPIEGEL: You describe an increasingly atomised society that has trouble defending its freedoms. The anti-Europeans, on the other hand, aren't just loud – more than anything, they are united.
Tillmans: There are some similarities between the far left and the far right when it comes to certain authoritarian and anti-semitic traits. But in terms of social policy, the liberal model has been winning for the last 60 years, despite the cries of naysayers. This drives certain groups of white men crazy.
SPIEGEL: Does our liberal culture spend too little time talking about its achievements, or is it not finding the right words and symbols to convey them? And isn't it up to artists like you to do that?
Tillmans: Actually, yes, but we had a completely different experience in our youth. Things that polarised were considered cool. Today we are suddenly realising that sharing and negotiating, that is, things that are completely uncool, are necessary if we're to continue living safely in the future. On the other hand, controversy, aggression and testosterone are easier to sell in a capitalist system. War films do better at the box office than movies about helpfulness and solidarity. It's mostly older women who provide cohesion in our society. And they do it without giving big speeches. They're really the ones who should be considered the coolest of all!
SPIEGEL: Was your generation too apolitical?
Tillmans: I wouldn't say so. The Love Parade was always described as apolitical, but was it really? Techno generated a very real experience of international understanding. In 1992, the year of the Maastricht treaty, my colleagues at the London magazine i-D and I were excited about the fact that we were dancing to one beat – and not in a conformist sense. It was voluntary and temporary. It is true, however, that 20 years ago I simply couldn't have imagined that someone would have evil intentions towards me and my way of life. Perhaps that was a mistake.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you describing the EU a little too positively? Take the issue of press freedom, for example. It's under pressure in many EU countries – in Viktor Orbán's Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński's Poland, for example.
Tillmans: It's true that the EU is being attacked from within and from outside. But anyone can read about what the EU stands for in the charter of fundamental rights. For instance, countries that want EU membership have to abolish the death penalty. That describes a consensus that I view as the European centre, and this consensus is intact. I'm not saying that what we have now is perfect. It's totally normal that when 28 people sit down at one table, things are sometimes arduous. But what would be the alternative?
SPIEGEL: You wrote the following on a poster: "Flawed? Yes. Slow? Yes. Attractive? Uhh." You're admitting that many people often view Brussels bureaucracy as annoying?
Tillmans: Some bureaucracy doesn't annoy me; rather it protects me. Dictators hate bureaucracy. They want to get rid of laws quickly and eliminate regulations. The fact that the EU's wheels turn so slowly is precisely what makes it strong. The EU gets in the way of autocrats like Orbán and Kaczyński, but also monopolists like Microsoft. One of the slogans on my posters reads: "What is lost is lost forever." When an environmental directive is eliminated, it doesn't return two years later. Bureaucracy creates clean beaches in Britain. The entire EU bureaucracy has fewer employees than the city-state of Hamburg. The annoying discussions in Brussels, the long nights of negotiations – these things are the price we pay for not shooting at each other any more.
SPIEGEL: Fifteen years ago, the country was still interested in joining the monetary union. Now, it may even want to get out of the EU altogether. Why have anti-European tendencies grown so strongly in Britain in the past 15 years?
Tillmans: It's also important to understand: Britain has seen net immigration of 3 million people since 2004.
SPIEGEL: A large proportion of these people came from Poland. Five years ago, the British were still overjoyed that their heating systems and drains were finally working again, thanks to Polish plumbers.
Tillmans: Yes, the famous Polish Plumber. But there were also undesirable social and political developments that provoked enormous dissatisfaction. They included the transformation of the economy into a service and financial economy, as well as the government's complete withdrawal from housing construction in a period of rising population. There are many Britons who view themselves as on the losing end today. For them, immigrants are competitors, and they articulate this in nationalist sentiments.
SPIEGEL: Is Brexit also a reaction against multicultural London, where voters recently elected a Muslim mayor?
Tillmans: When you leave cities like London or Birmingham, you find that England is astonishingly monocultural and white. In that environment, it may be possible to hold onto a fantasy like "splendid isolation" for a longer period of time, even though reality wasn't all that splendid in the 1960s and 1970s.
SPIEGEL: You grew up in Remscheid, Germany. Was it mainly music that drew you to London, or were there also other things you found alluring about the place?
Tillmans: The strange thing is that my relationship with Britain began 13 years before I was born, in 1955, when my mother's school in Lüneburg had an exchange programme with a school in London. My mother is still close to her exchange partner, and when I fell in love with Culture Club and Boy George in 1983, I suddenly discovered London as the place I wanted to be. For me, it was a place of freedom, a place of street culture and nightlife, shaped by the disposition of the British people who, on the one hand, have a certain self-restraint, but also seek especially strong expression and celebrate a kind of individualism that runs counter to the norm.
SPIEGEL: At the time, were you happy to leave Germany behind?
Tillmans: Like many in my generation, I had the feeling that things were better elsewhere. Many people have the same experience, in that they first have to go abroad to recognise their own country's qualities, and that certain German elements I have, traits I wouldn't want to lose, were very much complemented by Britain.
SPIEGEL: How would you describe these German elements within yourself?
Tillmans: An interplay of rationality and romanticism. In Britain, I learned to question everything – especially those romantic feelings, which are somewhat problematic for us Germans. Of course, the British are helped by their humour, which reflects an anti-authoritarian stance that has always attracted me. And then there is this predilection for the irrational. Brexit, though, would be a little too irrational.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel that people understand you better in London? It is, after all, where your career as an artist received a decisive boost.
Tillmans: I moved away from Berlin one day before the Berlin Wall came down – on November 8, 1989 – after dropping out of a photography traineeship. I went to Hamburg and then on to England to study there. If I had waited a day longer, I would have seen the coat of history fluttering, and my life would have taken a different course. I've always seen going abroad and the mixed identity it created as a gift.
SPIEGEL: What was possible in London that wouldn't have been achievable in Hamburg or Berlin?
Tillmans: London's character as a metropolis is unique in Europe. Despite all its problems, the city's size, internationalism and the interconnectedness of the people probably makes it the most integrated world city on earth. When you look at Paris, where this very obviously hasn't quite worked, or at New York, which also has major problems, in London you do have an attitude towards life that is very cool.
SPIEGEL: You have now had your studio in Berlin for the last five years.
Tillmans: And I still have one in London, too. But London is no longer the first choice for budding artists and younger people. It has simply become too expensive. You can't survive there without two jobs. And as a city, it's so over-commercialised and, as a result, so tightly controlled and monitored that it has become difficult to say that the first priority there is to live your life freely.
SPIEGEL: What exactly is it that you think has changed in London?
Tillmans: As a result of the reforms introduced by Thatcher and perpetuated by Labour, society is now divided into the haves and the have-nots. In Britain, this having and not-having is particularly tied to property ownership. Those who own no property are not protected. My tenancy agreements in London were always for one year. This created an uncertainty and a complete inability to plan ahead. There are a few things of this sort that aren't so great. On the other hand, Britain lends Europe greater dynamism. For instance, the country has produced the most European Nobel Prize winners. As both a Londoner and a German, my commitment to remaining in the EU stems from this ambivalent love for England and for Europe. The Britons' creative way of thinking, and their unique perspective, which is also related to their capitalist side, is important for Europe. Also the fact that they are constantly questioning the EU apparatus.
SPIEGEL: Mr Tillmans, we thank you for this interview.