Elvis, Marx, and Others Direct Traffic in Germany

Traffic lights are one of the last places you would expect to find artistic expression. The stick figure of a walking man and an upheld hand tell pedestrians all they need to know about whether it is safe to cross the street or not. Why embellish these simple symbols?

For some, the better question is, “Why not?”


In 1961, Karl Peglau, a traffic psychologist, designed the image for East Berlin’s pedestrian crossing lights. Known as Ampelmännchen, or “little traffic light man,” the symbol consists of a man with a hat, confidently striding forward. Ampelmännchen is so eye-catching that he is one of the few beloved symbols of the former East Germany.

Now, after more than 60 years of adorning German intersections, Ampelmännchen is inspiring a new generation of creative pedestrian signals.

Elvis-inspired traffic signals in Bad Nauheim and Friedberg

Elvis Presley lived in Bad Nauheim and was stationed in Friedberg while he was serving in the U.S. Army. To commemorate their connection with the King of Rock and Roll, the towns have adopted Elvis-inspired traffic signals.

This writer is colorblind, so admittedly, these signals might make more sense to those who are not thus impaired. We confess, however, that we aren’t sure which signal is supposed to let you know when to walk and when to stop. One of them is supposed to show Elvis in front of a microphone. To our eyes, it appears to show a man urinating on the street. Hopefully, no one mistakes that as permission to do the same. The other symbol shows the King in one of his hip-gyrating moves. Since Elvis did this while keeping his feet essentially in one place, we’re not sure how this tells pedestrians what to do.

Karl Marx directs pedestrian traffic in Trier

If you find yourself in Bad Nauheim or Friedberg, do what the rest of us colorblind folks do in foreign countries, and watch to see what the locals do.

Other parts of Germany pay tribute to their famous residents, as well. The town of Trier celebrated the 200th birthday of Karl Marx by giving him authority over pedestrian activity.

Sebastian Kneipp, the “Water Doctor,” on Bad Nauheim traffic lights

This practice also allows communities to raise awareness of lesser-known historical figures. In Bad Nauheim, Elvis shares traffic duty with Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th-century Roman Catholic priest. Kneipp was an early advocate of today’s naturopathic medicine. He is known locally as the “water doctor.”

Because Kneipp is not well known, many visitors to the town think the light shows a ninja or a Jedi knight. That may be helpful in dealing with the people down the street who misunderstand the Elvis symbol. Using Jedi mind trick powers, the misguided individuals can be redirected by being told, “This is not the urinal you are looking for.”

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