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Ampelmann: How a little communist man conquered the West

From Berlin's streets to souvenir shops, we find out how the quirky traffic light symbol of the bygone East went on to colonise the West.

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Photo by AMPELMANN GmbH. Ampelmann designer Karl Peglau who along with Markus Heckhausen formed the “Rescue Committeee for Ampelmann”.

There are few success stories originating from the GDR that even come close to that of the iconic Ampelmann. This quirky traffic-light man has been around since 1961, when traffic psychologist Karl Peglau turned in his first draft for the new pedestrian lights in East Berlin. The de­sign’s chubby little fellow had a purpose­fully rounder belly than his West German counterpart, to increase light-efficiency and to appear friendlier to pedestrians. But Peglau feared his East German superiors would dislike the hat that his assistant had added, since those could be associated with the dressed-up bour­geoisie. To his delight, the design was accepted, marking the beginning of one of the most famous symbols to survive the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It took a whopping eight years of meticulous behavioural studies and demo runs at the crossing of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße for Ampelmann to finally be introduced as an official part of traffic security in 1969. But the famous man with a paunch and stubby nose was an instant success, spreading quickly throughout the East, on the streets and on TV – he featured in the widely popular kid’s show Sand­männchen, where Stoppi and Galoppo – Peglau’s respective nicknames for his red and green creations – taught little East Germans how to not get hit by Trabis. When the Berlin Wall finally came tumbling down, it first seemed like the Ampelmann would meet the same destiny as most other GDR symbols, i.e. be erased out of reunified Germany’s sight and memory. In 1990, the new government started switching him out for his skinnier and blander West German alternative. Ampel­mann might have been completely wiped out of existence, had it not been for a certain Swabian designer with an eye for icons, a nos­talgia for the East and a great business sense.

“Tübingen is a beautiful city, but I felt the need to experience more,” says Markus Heckhausen, who decided to move to the newly united capital in 1995, when state workers were in the process of removing his favourite symbol of the East. One day, when witnessing the “tragedy” unfold on Rosenthaler Platz, he decided to ask for the torn off diffusion discs.

He took them home and advertised what was to be the first of his themed products, the Ampelmann lamp, from the rooftop of his apartment building in Auguststraße. His mis­sion to revive the Ossi emblem didn’t stop there – he teamed up with inventor Peglau to found the “Rescue Committee for Ampel­mann”, an initiative to lobby local politicians. In 1997, they published the Ampelmann biog­raphy Das Buch vom Ampelmännchen to bring public awareness to the issue. Their outcry was heard – in 2005 Berlin officials passed a resolution to start replacing all outdated traffic lights in West Berlin with the Eastern Ampelmann, a development that soon spread across Germany as more and more Western cities opted for the Eastern icon. Of the approximately 2100 traffic light locations in Berlin, around 64 percent are currently sporting the famous GDR design.

Heckhausen was quick to monetise the hype. He drew up an agreement with Peglau in which he’d receive the branding and trademarking rights in exchange for paying ongoing licens­ing fees to him as the copyright owner and founded Ampelmann GmbH in 1999. Peglau also remained involved in the creative deci­sions right up until he passed away in 2009 at 82. The brand has come a long way since the first themed merch store opened in Hackesche Höfe in 2001, which back then sold around 20 products – mostly variations of Ampelmann lamps. Today, the seven-store Berlin empire sells a variety of around 600 products, from the ever-popular red and green gummy sweets, to t-shirts with Stoppi on the back and Galoppo on the front. Apart from a baby clothing line and themed toys like soccer balls or teddys that appeal to Ostalgic families, the brand also includes person­alised engraved magnets and keychains, exclusively available at their flagship store in Friedrichstraße – right next to the crossing where the first Ampelmann traffic lights were introduced to the world.

Heckhausen’s marketing interests have also reached beyond Ampelmann – in 2003, he expanded his license reper­toire by acquiring the rights to Ampelfrau, Ampelmann’s pigtailed, dress-wearing counterpart. The female figure was first introduced in Zwickau in 2004, a move followed by Dresden the following year on recommendation of the city’s equal opportunity commissioner. Despite a few setbacks in recent years, including the closing of a store at Berlin’s Alexa mall as well as the failure of a themed restaurant near Hackescher Markt and a branch in Tokyo, the brand is doing well and strik­ing new deals – a recently opened shop at Tegel airport is going strong and a limited edition of Spreequell’s kiwi-flavoured water with green Ampelmann branding pres­ents a new promotional platform. Creative promotion has even included a campaign to “go green” in support of the Fridays for Future movement. Heckhausen says that he has invested a lot into the brand, and now he seems to be facing a new challenge: “We pro­duce high-quality products, which only works if there are no cheap rip-offs on the market.” Who’d have ever believed that the little GDR traffic light man would not only conquer the West but become a best-selling Berlin souve­nir – such an icon it’d attract counterfeiters? This might just be the best compliment that the market economy could ever pay to a little communist man!