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No schadenfreude here: Two German artists told The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman they were the ones who placed the white American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge—not to strike fear, but to encourage admiration of the architecture.

In the confession, the Berlin-based artists Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke said they never meant to embarrass the New York Police Department or pull something akin to an act of terrorism. Instead, they wanted to celebrate the bridge and its engineer John Roebling, who was born in Germany and died in 1869 on July 22—the day they hoisted the white flags onto the bridge. Here's how Leinkauf put it:

We saw the bridge, which was designed by a German, trained in Berlin, who came to America because it was the place to fulfill his dreams, as the most beautiful expression of a great public space. That beauty was what we were trying to capture.

Unfortunately for the duo, their ode to Roebling and the bridge set off a serious response from the NYPD, which amped up security at major bridges after it interpreted the flags as a security breach. 

The pair, naturally, were taken aback by such a response.

"This was not an anti-American statement," Wermke said.

"From our Berlin background, we were a little surprised that it got the reaction it did," Leinkauf added. "We really didn't intend to embarrass the police."

In fact, they said, they had hand-sewn the flags, using two kinds of white fabric to evoke the stars and stripes, and even folded the original American flags in the ceremonial method. (Leinkauf said the flags will be returned.) They were inspired by artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, who climbed the Clocktower Building in Lower Manhattan in 1975, and when they hoisted their white flags up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. on July 22, they were thinking only of drawing attention to the bridge.

It's something they've been doing for about a decade, as shown on their website. They target buildings and bridges in far-flung cities like Tokyo and Vienna, pursuing projects that usually involve attaching materials or traversing through public space. 

Still, the misunderstanding between the pair's artistic goal and the security concerns from the NYPD underline the cultural differences between the fragile New York and the laid back Berlin. 

"Few people would care if we did the same thing in Berlin," Leinkauf said. "Of course, we did not have the same problems with terrorism."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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