Buddy Bears: Friendliness & Ignorance In Berlin’s Celebrated Mascot

How a cute animal mascot sweeps art under the rug.

In a zoo to the east of central Berlin, 146 gigantic bear sculptures line up in a clean row to greet its visitors. This 2020-2021 exhibition, called “The Art of Tolerance,” is only the current iteration in a twenty-year-long series of world tours. Historically, bears were the coat of arms of Berlin, which led Klaus and Eva Herlitz along with the sculptor Roman Stobl to use the mascot of a bear for their art project in 2001. By scattering colorful bear sculptures throughout the city as street art, they sought to spotlight the vibrant artistic and cultural scene in Berlin.

buddy bears
FACEBOOK Berlin “Buddy Bears”

Twenty years and thirty-four world cities later, a huge collection of Bears, called Buddy Bears, once again woo the local visitors to the Tierpark Zoo in their full stature and confidence. The identical shape and size of the bears make it so that when lined up, their arms appear as if they are holding hands. The raised arms are designed to communicate “a friendly attitude and optimism”, and while they’re bigger than the average human when stood upright, a bear standing on its hind legs in nature would not be a sign of aggression, but of curiosity. Each Buddy Bear is painted on by an international artist, who has designed their Bear to represent their home country, incorporating its most symbolic cultural icons, wildlife, landscapes, and historical monuments.

One of the biggest sponsors behind the striking 2020-2021 exhibition is the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs. Such an exhibition is indeed fit for the German government to sponsor – Germany is one of the world’s most diverse countries and continues to host the fifth-largest refugee population. “The Art of Tolerance” is, of course, an art that Germany has politically and socially strived to learn, ever since its break from fascism many decades ago.

Berlin Buddy Bears
Photo by Alvaro Sanchez on Unsplash

Street art as an art form, “primarily an arena for fighting commercialism and mass culture,” is increasingly commercialized into the field of branding and marketing. Patronage in the art world occurs when the financier, be it a company, a governmental institution, or simply an individual art-enthusiast, commissions a work of art to be created by the selected artist. While the artist’s fight is about attracting as big an audience as possible to spread their own ideas, the goal of the commissioner is to foster a suitable image of themselves through their commissioned artworks. In the case of the Buddy Bears, the German government seeks out artists that would paint a designated concept (a collage of one’s own country) onto a specified canvas (the bear.) Through the artworks, the government can present an image of themselves as a tolerant and progressive nation.

Afghanistan Buddy Bear Front
The front of the Afghan Buddy Bear. PHOTO: buddy-baer.com

Let’s look at the Buddy Bear representing Afghanistan in the exhibition. The Afghan artist, Nasima Sheerzoi, wished to paint the Buddha statue of Bamian on the front of the Bear, where it would be the most noticeable. “That proved to be impossible as the bear’s belly curved too far outwardly,” she writes. “I therefore decided to paint the Buddha on the bear’s back.” The specifications given by the commissioner (the form of the Bear) ended up constraining the artist’s expressive freedom. By painting the current state of the Buddha, which had been destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, Sheerzoi had intended to express her grief over the recent events in her home country. But Buddy Bear specifically commissions works that present the world’s “unique culture” and simultaneously not of its “political systems.” This must have additionally constrained the meaning of the destroyed Buddha statue, so it could not act as a direct protest against the Taliban, but only as the artist’s personal expression of helplessness.

Buddy Bear Berlin
Nasima Sheerzoi with the back of her Buddy Bear. PHOTO: Buddy-baer.com

The Bears, however, cannot afford to change their shapes to fit the artist’s intention – they do not immediately reflect each world country it represents. First and foremost, the Bears are about Germany, about their commitment to liberalism and cultural tolerance. In his speech at the 2006 exhibition, also in Berlin, the German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development announced, “We are determined to never again give room to intolerance, right-wing extremism, and fascism!”

In their effort to dissociate itself from its dark past, Germany had fashioned for itself a cute, lovable mascot to represent cultural diversity. Kojima (1993) identifies four benefits of using a mascot as a branding strategy. If we consider Germany, as a nation promoting certain ideologies, as a brand, the mascot increases brand awareness, improves the communication of the brand’s ideas, enhances the audience’s feelings of motivation and affection, and reflects the audience’s personality. In other words, a mascot generates a sentimental attachment in the consumer to the brand and to the product itself. By seeing the Buddy Bears representing one’s own city, standing proudly to greet the families enjoying their weekends, the audience internalizes the national (or municipal) pride and reassures herself of the city’s high degree of cultural tolerance.

But Germany still has a long way to go. Immigrants and minority ethnic groups continue to live in exclusion: under-educated, underpaid, and unemployed. Neo-Nazism prevails in the country’s many demonstrations and in a tenth of its voter population. For all its celebration of diversity, the Buddy Bears are rigidly uniform and ordered in their presentation, like dominos, as if intentionally arranged by a higher authority. Germany, then, is who lays out the dominos.

United Buddy Bears Berlin
United Buddy Bears Berlin. PHOTO: buddy-baer.com

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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