Maya Barkai’s Walking Men Worldwide is a series of public art installations, displaying different pedestrian traffic icons from around the world. This month, a series of banners depicting Barkai’s Walking Men, The Banner Gallery, will decorate Sydney for the Art & About festival.
Alasdair Duncan: What was the inspiration behind Walking Men?
Maya Barkai: In 2004, New York was making the transition between the old ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ icons to traffic signs featuring walking icons, which seemed like a very appropriate thing for an international city. It was a controversial move in New York, but being Israeli, I was very accustomed to the seeing the icons around, so I noticed the change. I travel a lot and realised I saw different ones all around the world, so I started the collection.
AD: You banners featuring different walking man icons from cities around the world are currently spotted around Sydney’s inner city – how did you collect them all?
MB: I started collecting them myself, but it was a slow process, because it takes a while to travel to all those different places! As I got more involved in the project, I decided to start a website and make it a collaborative process. I moderate the site now, and take contributions from amateurs and professionals. It makes the project very interactive – the project wouldn’t have been possible without all the incredible submissions I’ve received.
AD: What does a walking man do for the character of a city? Does it change it in a big way?
MB: I can’t say that there’s any theory written on the subject, so this is all from my own impressions and experiences, but I’d say some cities are much more aware of what their traffic icons look like than others, and celebrate them more. There are some very funny ones. In Denmark, they have the silhouette of Hans Christian Andersen on the traffic lights. In Berlin, they have the Apple Man, who is so popular that they sell his merchandise. There’s another great icon in Fredericia, a military town in Denmark – the icon is a tribute to a very famous sculpture that they have called The Foot Soldier, based on the Danish Army conquering the town in the 1800s.
AD: Are there walking women around the world?
MB: There are, but there should be more! Dresden in Germany has a female icon. In the Netherlands, they have one called Sophie – there was a popular vote for her name and that’s what they picked.
AD: Do you have a personal favourite traffic icon?
MB: I really love Sophie from the Netherlands. She rocks the heels, as they say in New York. I also really like the cartoonish-looking ones. I love that Paris has six or so different ones, I find that really exciting.
AD: Is there one that you’d consider to be the strangest, or the most eccentric?
MB: In Warsaw, Poland, the walking man has an oversized head – it’s quite disproportional and very funny. As I said, I’m originally Israeli, and we have a lot of differences with our neighbouring countries, but we share the same walking icons, which is interesting – that’s at least one thing that unites us.
AD: Are you still accepting submissions?
MB: I certainly am. The project lives online as much as it does on the streets, so I always encourage people to upload images to my site, and interact with the Walking Men Worldwide Facebook page. I’d love to get more – I’m always excited by seeing new icons that I’ve never encountered, because it’s a big world of traffic light icons and nobody has ever bothered to put them all together before.