Germany Holidays: the return of the traffic light man
Berlin’s Ampelmann has had an on-off career, both literally and metaphorically, but these days he’s a local hero.
Berlin-watchers, or even just occasional visitors, will be aware of the fashion for iconic products and images of the former east Germany. The city has Ossi shops that specialise in nostalgic souvenirs (a selection of which we profile elsewhere in this site).
But there’s one particular symbol of the former east in today’s Berlin which has proved a successful and distinctive part of the city infrastructure: the Ampelmann, aka the traffic light man. He’s slightly rotund, slightly comical, eminently human, and now so loved that he has even inspired a string of shops.
The hat-wearing Ampelmann was first conceived back in 1961 by ‘traffic psychologist’ (wassat?) Karl Peglau. Unlike the rather dull and ubiquitous unisex silhouette used for pedestrians all over the rest of Europe, he was clearly identified as a male figure, and one with a purposeful stride when clad in green. In the 1980s he was adopted by the then East German Ministry of the Interior for all kinds of road safety campaigns, appearing in comic strips and on TV, but when the Wall fell in 1989, it looked as if his days were numbered. The unisex silhouette from the west started to invade.
The comeback begins
Initially, the poor little Ampelmann was taken down and dismantled, but gradually people started to object; his character had far more charm and personality than his anonymous usurper, and they wanted to keep him. It took a graphic designer from west Germany, however, to first come up with the idea of transferring the figure onto other products – in this case a set of table lamps.
Other products followed, and gradually, the figure became the mascot of Ostalgie, the nostalgia movement for anything east German. Eventually the Berlin authorities reversed the process of modernisation, and restored the original hatted figure to all traffic lights across the city in 2005. Other cities followed, and now there’s even an Ampelfrau, Ampelkinder, and variations of the Ampelmann carrying umbrella, camera etc.
These days you can take an Ampelmann home, too, thanks to a string of four Ampelmann shops in Berlin (particularly in Hackesche Höfe, with a nearby Ampelmann Restaurant in Monbijou Park). These sell everything from mugs to T-shirts to umbrellas to suitcases, all emblazoned with the little travelling man, or with newer members of his extended family.
Against all the odds, Ampelmann has become cool.
Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany
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