Climate sticker Wouter Mouton: ‘I soil a painting and have to go to jail, the boss of Shell destroys ecosystems and goes free’

A smile appears on his lips, one of undisguised pride, at home at his wooden dining table in a Bruges suburb. Earlier that December, ‘Klimaatklever’ was chosen as Van Dale word of the year – the nickname for himself and for all those other activists who stuck to a famous work of art in 2022 to draw attention to climate change. He notes with satisfaction that the word has often been voted on and that the theme is therefore very much alive in society. That something might even begin to change into what he refers to as “the critical mass‘. For a revolution, the masses only need one spark, as history has taught us. Then let him be that spark.

For a revolution, the masses only need one spark, history has taught that. Then let him be that spark

On Wednesday, October 26, Wouter Mouton (45) and two fanatical fellow climate activists, affiliated with the activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the more radical Just Stop Oil, are sitting at the same dining table in an otherwise rather empty living room. The heating is as low as is still bearable. All three have taken time off from work. They brainstorm how they will handle it the next day. Early in the morning they will travel by car to The Hague, where their world-famous target hangs in the Mauritshuis: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. Performing an action there means that it will be picked up by the media. And that’s what he’s about to do.

Mouton wants big „fusscause, even more than in July, when he glued himself with his right hand to a famous work in Bruges by renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck, following climate actions by others at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh in London’s National Gallery. Mouton made it to the Belgian press, but that was it. He had to go to jail for a few hours and was fined.

It was not the first time that Belgian media paid attention to his actions. In the spring of 2022, Mouton was in a white T-shirt with Climate Justice Now crossed the finish line of the Tour of Flanders on his chest, right behind winner Mathieu van der Poel, in full view. Three weeks later, he tied himself to a goalpost during the cup final between Anderlecht and AA Gent. All examples of what he calls “civil disobedience.” That’s the only way to wake people up, he says. And believe him: he has tried to make the pressing climate problem clear more than once. By demonstrating, handing out flyers, voting green. That works ‘non-disruptively’, but what has it achieved? Exactly nothing, says Mouton. He is willing to take more risks to “save life on the planet.”

Now the idea is to stick the side of his skull to the famous Vermeer canvas with Bison’s superglue. Mouton specially shaved his head the day before. He keeps the tubes of glue at home in a cardboard ‘protest box’. One of his accomplices takes canned tomato soup and pours it over Mouton. Not about the painting, which the activists think is too great a risk. The frame of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was damaged by the soup. That goes Mouton too far. He is concerned with “the visual effect”, which is why a professional photographer also comes along.


Mouton explicitly does not want to cause any damage. “Our first concern is always the safety of the painting,” he says. “That’s what preparation is all about. The actions must remain within certain values ​​and norms. Because it is important not to lose the public’s sympathy. I need that to reach critical mass.” In recent months Mouton has made a study of how a revolution arises. He read books about it and watched relevant films. About the British and American suffragettes, for example, women who demanded their right to vote in peaceful protests at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mouton sees them as a source of inspiration. More than once great things have been set in motion by one person.

The climate activists buy a ticket and enter the Mauritshuis on 27 October without any problems. Mouton is always nervous just before an action starts. He knows it’s risky what he’s doing. He has an eight-year-old daughter at home. He fights for her. He wants children like her to grow up in a safe world. She is also the only one for whom he would stop campaigning. She shouldn’t suffer. So far that has not happened.

Once in the museum, they rush to the target and begin to perform the action without hesitation. When Mouton is taped, guards rush towards him. He holds out a vial with soybean oil, which will release the glue. But the guards are waiting for the police to arrive. At the same time, Mouton’s colleague reads out a statement in which he contrasts the ‘hassle’ about stained works of art with the ‘daily destruction of living environments in the name of economic growth’. The photographer makes sure that everything is captured.

The action lasts a few minutes and then Mouton is arrested, under the watchful eye of an angry Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis. But his point has been made. Because this time not only Belgian media are reporting about the action. Mouton is on the front page as far as Spain and the news goes all over the world.

The three disappear into the cell, for a few hours, they think. After all, that’s how it always went in Belgium. They were imprisoned for up to twelve hours. The fine that fell on the doormat afterwards was usually also waived after a notice of objection. “About three times” that didn’t work and then Extinction Rebellion paid.

But now they won’t just be released. First they are held in a cell in The Hague for six days, where they are allowed out three times a day to air. Mouton has been wearing his T-shirt smeared with tomato soup all the while. Then they are sentenced by the police judge to two months in prison, one of which is conditionally sentenced for “violence against an object” and “disturbance of the peace”. The judge believes that Mouton and his colleagues have crossed a line this time. They also have to pay a compensation of 2,000 euros to compensate for the cleaning costs, “but we have not heard anything more about that”. They are serving their sentence in Alphen aan den Rijn. The same goes for the man who didn’t glue himself but only took pictures. Mouton: “It does not testify to a healthy democracy if a photojournalist can also be detained just like that. I find that worrying.”

Photo Nick Somers

Two sizes

He is shocked by the verdict for several reasons, against which the lawyers of Just Stop Oil are appealing. “I know what I’m doing is illegal, and I’m doing it knowingly. But all things considered, two standards are used here. I soil the glass of a painting and go to jail for weeks, while the CEO of a company like Shell is constantly destroying entire ecosystems and gets away with it.”

Mouton’s prison sentence fits in a recent pattern of stricter measures against climate stickers in other countries. Earlier this week it was announced that Extinction Rebellion in Britain is ending civil disobedience and disruptive actions, according to an official statement in order to work on the growth of their organization. But what seems to play into it is a law that has yet to pass the British House of Lords, with which climate stickers risk a prison sentence of six months. “A year ago you ran the risk of ending up in jail for maybe five hours as a stickler,” says Mouton on the phone. “But six months in prison is quite a difference. This is a deterrent. Many people at XR (Extinction Rebellion, ed.) Will no longer be able to afford that. I am afraid that this law will also spread to other countries.”

Not that he himself stops his actions. He is willing to continue taking “personal risks” to “save life on earth.” And with him many others. “Extinction Rebellion is active in more than eighty countries,” says Mouton. “And Just Stop Oil is also getting bigger. I don’t expect civil disobedience to disappear. Perhaps the field of action changes temporarily. No more arts for a while, but more street blockades, for example.”

Read also: UK climate activists from Extinction Rebellion suspend disruptive actions

Point of no return

Wouter Mouton still remembers exactly when he first became aware of the climate problem. It was in 2006 when he An Inconvenient Truth of former US Vice President Al Gore. Gore managed to make the rise in sea level so “visual and concrete” that Mouton began to delve into the consequences of climate change. The more he read, the more anxious and depressed he became. Those emotions never disappeared and became his driving force. “Sea levels don’t even bother me the most,” he says. “How close we are to the point of no return.” He refers to the climate clock that counts down to the moment the earth has warmed by one and a half degrees, the number that was agreed as the maximum in the Paris climate agreements in 2015. The clock is currently at six years and over a hundred days.

Al Gore made Mouton aware, Thunberg inspired him to action

It would take until 2018 before Mouton himself took action. That was when he saw Swedish activist Greta Thunberg skip school one day a week to draw attention to the climate. Her picture is on the home screen of his tablet and her name on the side of his guitar. “When I saw that from my couch, I thought I had to do something. If she could, why couldn’t I?” Mouton, who works at a chemical factory where materials are recycled, took all his parental leave in one fell swoop to be able to campaign. Since then he has been standing on the Markt in Bruges one or two days a week with a sign that reads: ‘What do you do to fight climate change?‘. That became his basic action, he was already there about three hundred times. Since 2021, he has turned to more radical means.

During the Liège-Bastogne-Liège cycling race at the end of April 2022, Mouton wanted to enter the course when bystanders recognized him. “The police pushed me to the ground with three men so hard that I broke my elbow and suffered a concussion. I was unable to work for four months. Of course I reported it. But I feel especially strengthened by those kinds of reactions. I’m proud of it, I feel like I’m doing everything I can to make a difference. And I won’t stop.”

Good direction

In fact, says Wouter Mouton, he no longer sees things getting better with the climate. But when he lets that realization sink in, he loses all hope. Then he gives up. And then you know for sure that nothing will change. He takes courage from recent environmental lawsuits against states. There are about 2,000 worldwide, he says. At the end of 2019, Urgenda won a climate case and the Dutch state was obliged by the Supreme Court to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And in Belgium, the citizens’ collective Climate Case also won a case from the government in 2021 because the Belgian climate policy ‘violates the legal duty of care and human rights’. However, no reduction targets followed. That is why Climate Case appealed against the case that she herself won.

Mouton: “This was unthinkable five years ago. They are all signals in the right direction. Now only the general public has to pick it up.”