Ever thought about what that little green man that blinks you to walk looks like in Dresden or Montreal? The universally rendered ‘man’ is both symbolically identical across the world and reflective of the unique character of the city and culture. Why is it sometimes a girl and how did the silhouette of a writer and national symbol come to blink in green?
Israeili-born Maya Barkai became fascinated with the symbol when wondering the streets of New York, she noticed the well-known ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ lights were replaced with new icons. This urged Barkai to start a collection – and after debuting in Manhattan and showing in Russia and Israel, Walking Men Worldwide™ arrives in Sydney for our annual arts festival.
Q: You’re probably familiar with the history behind the symbol. Why do we see slight differences?
A: Over the years I have accumulated a great deal of information, but I still haven’t found an official source that explores these issues in a globally cohesive way, so most of the observations are my own.
I found that the direction of each icon isn’t always consistent with the direction of traffic, for example. I think some cities might leave the design of the ‘walking man’ icon to their traffic light manufacturers, which could be the reason why cities like Jerusalem, Beirut, and Cape Town are similar.
Q: Why are some different colours?
A: A German traffic psychologist by the name Karl Peglau (also the creator of Berlin’s iconic Ampelmann symbol), theorized that people would respond better to traffic signals if presented by a friendly figure and colour. While colour psychology clearly plays an important role when discussing public signage, cultural differences influence some countries in choosing to use orange and white.
Q: Why have some places selected women for the characters?
A: Though I don’t know why…I am a great fan of them. I believe that the first female icon came from Dresden, in Germany, and one of my favorite icons is Sophie, which decorates the traffic lights in Utrecht. The feminine crossing light was also introduced in the Netherlands about ten years ago, and today, Sophie can be spotted in several cities in the Netherlands.
Q: What are some of the strangest/funniest/unique characters that you’ve come across?
A: I love how the city of Odense uses the silhouette of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author and poet. The icon itself is adorned with Andersen’s iconic hat and cane, and is incredibly elaborate. Creating such an icon is not only educational but also generates much interest and pride from the local population.
Q: Which character do you think has the most interesting story behind it?
A: Ampelmännchen (little traffic light man, or Ampelmann, in English) is a beloved symbol in Eastern Germany, enjoying the privileged status of being one of the few features of communist East Germany to have survived after the end of the Iron Curtain with his popularity unscathed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmann acquired ‘cult status’ and became a popular souvenir item.
Q: What attracted to you Art & About and why did you want to showcase your project here?
A: Art & About offers an exciting opportunity for public artists like myself; I love the idea of making art that isn’t separated from the public or enclosed by walls, and the festival offers a great stage by commissioning and encouraging artists to work in the public realm and think on a larger scale. A project like Walking Men Worldwide originates from the street and belongs to the street, so it’s a great fit.
Q: What next for yourself and your next project?
A: Walking Men Worldwide™ is an ongoing project, and I hope that the exposure through Art & About will help to continue its development. I am currently exhibiting a piece about bicycles at the Tel Aviv Museum of art, and working on a Kids At Play installation. Limited edition prints are also in plan for 2014, as well as video installations under the umbrella of Walking Men Worldwide™.
Read more about The Banner Gallery on our Art & About Sydney website.