Created in 1961, Ampelmann guarded the roads in the formerly communist half of Germany while sporting a pointy hat and a jaunty stride.
But today he exists beyond pedestrian crossings, having become a popular Berlin souvenir in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
Creator Karl Peglau never imaged the cult status his pedestrian traffic crossing symbol would acquire when he realised the need for change on the streets of East Germany. As a government traffic psychologist, he was concerned for the growing number of vehicles on the roads, and the lack of adequate safety measures for people on foot.
For Peglau, there was only one answer, the implementation of a new traffic light for pedestrians. But this new light couldn’t just be anything, his widow Hildegard Peglau explained recently: “My husband was certain. Only when pedestrians like and understand a traffic symbol, will they follow him.”
So, when Peglau wasn’t working, he was hatching designs. Sure in his belief that it needed to be more than just another flashing bulb on the already illuminated streets, he wanted to create something with a personal feel. The final result would have to be something that would speak to people.
Ideas for its general appearance came to Peglau relatively quickly. One of the only points of contention was, however, the figure’s hair-do. A side parting, with its potentially Hitler undertones, was quickly vetoed. A curly mop was also deemed too stereotypically southern German, and rejected as well.
However, the solution came by surprise one summer’s day. Peglau’s TV flickered with an image of East German leader Erich Honecker enjoying the sunny weather. And on his head was the straw hat that would be the inspiration for the Ampelmann headgear.
Not being much of an artist, Peglau passed on drawing duties to his assistant Anneliese Wegner. Under his guidance she sketched out the two versions of the Ampelmann – green to usher pedestrians across the street, and his spread-arm red alter-ego to keep them on the sidewalk.
On 13 October 1961, the East Germany ministry of transport was presented with what would later become a cult phenomenon. Eight bureaucratic-filled years later, the first Ampelmann was installed in Berlin, on the corner of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße.
It was the reunification of Germany that marked what could have been the beginning of the end for the Ampelmann. As communist East Germany imploded, so did his dominance over the country’s streets. But before he was completely replaced by his western cousin, an artist from Baden-Württemberg pulled the abandoned sign out, literally, from the scrap heap and began a revival.
The year was 1996, and Markus Heckhausen had just arrived on the East Berlin art scene. “I was speechless that such a characterful, recognisable figure could be so easily replaced,” he said. The artist began gathering old crossing signs, out of which he made his first piece – a red lamp.
These lamps are still sold today and alongside vases, stationary, mugs and other paraphernalia, in the four Berlin Ampelmann shops.
At first, Peglau was sceptical of Heckhausen’s project. But after getting to know the artist he was soon on-board; becoming not only a shareholder, but also a father figure in the company until his death in 2009. Peglau’s widow explained that “without Heckhausen and his creations, the Ampelmännchen would have never survived.”
The popularity of Ampelmann merchandise raised the almost forgotten East German crossing man back from the dead. Following a successful campaign for his reinstatement, new ones began springing up across the East. Some western German cities even adopted the iconic graphic figure.
Heckhausen’s merchandise is also experiencing considerable success outside of Germany. The Japanese in particular find the story of his move from the pedestrian crossing to celebrity fascinating. Reportedly, there is a song in the pipeline and even a smart phone app. “Next stop, Hollywood,” said Heckhausen, whose business in Germany alone is worth €7 million.
For eastern Germans, the Ampelmann symbolises a small bit of identity of a lost nation. For tourists, it’s a keepsake from the quirky German capital. Either way, he is beloved by locals and tourists alike, and at the age of 50 he is showing no signs of losing the spring in his step.