The late Mr Karl Peglau is one of my idols. He wasn’t a sportsman, a statesman, an actor or an executive; he was a traffic psychologist.
When visiting Berlin, Germany in 2011, I was inspired by the most normal of experiences: crossing the street. Fifty years prior to my stroll across a hard-to-pronounce, multi-syllabled German street, the East Berlin Traffic Commission hired Peglau to design new pedestrian traffic symbols that would help reduce the amount of traffic accidents that arose due to the ever-increasing number of vehicles.
Peglau created what came to be known as the ‘Ampelmännchen’; human symbols Peglau described as having “an aura of coziness and human warmth”. The green pedestrian light reminded me of a cricket umpire, and the red light resembled an umpire calling a ‘wide’ ball. Peglau’s East Berlin traffic symbols became so popular that even when the unified German government decided to remove them in the early 1990s, a successful campaign was launched to save the Ampelmännchen. You can now find it everywhere in Berlin; one of the most prominently preserved legacies of the Communist East.
I was just crossing the street. I’ve spent hours if not days in some of the world’s most prominent galleries and museums. I’ve stood inches away from Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, Michaelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, and countless other masterpieces of architecture, sculpture, and design; yet none of them stopped me in time like the first moment I spotted the Ampelmännchen.
You should probably doubt my appreciation of art when I claim that a traffic symbol inspired me more than a priceless Da Vinci masterpiece. It’s not that I don’t appreciate most forms of art, it’s just that I have preference for artwork that doesn’t discriminate; artwork that anyone can access regardless of their social or economic background, artwork you don’t have to pay to see, artwork with purpose and intent, artwork that begs to rest naked and open to judgment.
After my visit to Berlin I contacted the design team behind the campaign to save and repurpose the Ampelmännchen to ask if they had an interest in designing a version for Bermuda. They had already designed dozens of localised pedestrian traffic symbols for other cities, and were keen on partnering to give Bermuda its own Peglau-inspired traffic symbol. My pitch to local officials wasn’t fruitful and the project never materialised, however in hindsight my rejected proposal spring-boarded a passion for public art and helping to advocate and bring more of it to Bermuda.
The last several years have been very challenging with regards to lobbying public officials for more consideration for public art, albeit there have been moments of tangible progress. Most of them classify it as a non-essential public feature; one that has little tangible benefit when compared to civil engineering, road management, and the everyday business of a country. I’ve deviated from my use of the term public art to be more specific. I don’t ask for consideration for public art anymore, I request that investments in targeted beautification are made for the economic improvement of residential and/or commercial neighbourhoods. Quite a mouthful, but otherwise it has been difficult to explain the notion that inviting and retaining pedestrians via visual forms of art increases their chances of staying in an area and browsing for goods and services.
Personally speaking, once you have lived in Bermuda for an extended period of time it can be difficult to obtain inspiration from everyday scenery, and waiting to be inspired is ill advised. I’ve listened to perennial statements by the island’s elite for a new Hamilton waterfront to be constructed, for the pedestrianisation of city streets, for the creation of beach bars and boardwalks, for a general increase in adult-oriented recreation, and other grandiose projects and initiatives that have never materialised.
The time I have spent on public art isn’t just to help make Bermuda look prettier; every project I have been involved with is a form of protest. A disapproval of the perceived lack of forward vision, a lack of anti-blight ordinances, an outcry against well-paid public officials and the inertia that accompanies them when it comes to a lack of visible change in our built environment. The art is pretty, the motivation less so.
An opportunity arose in the Summer of 2015 to propose a public art project for the City of Hamilton. I knew immediately what I wanted to design and lobby for, and it was approved. I didn’t request to be paid for my time involved as I didn’t want to be. These types of projects are gifts to my younger self; each a reminder to not lose youthful idealism. The emotional currency of knowing people I’ll never meet will get to enjoy a revitalised space, and that nearby businesses will benefit from increased foot traffic, cannot be counted despite being constantly deposited.
Since October of last year a sweeping light installation extending throughout the entirety of Chancery Lane on Front Street has helped turn what was once a dark and uninviting alley into Bermuda’s most photographed street. Anyone of any background, without discrimination, can enjoy being exposed to artwork that was designed with purpose, designed with intent, designed from frustration; a child of Karl Peglau.
This article first appeared in RG Fall magazine in 2016.