The Mysterious Toynbee Tiles

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For the last three decades, somebody has been secretly leaving strange, cryptic messages in dozens of cities all over the United States and South America. These messages are painted on rectangular linoleum tiles and embedded into the asphalt of the streets. The majority of the tiles carry the same message, or variation of the same, which is:

IN MOVIE `2001

These tiles are referred to as “Toynbee tiles” due to their reference to the famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee. Other tiles carry political statements and tirades against society and culture, spelled out in a similar cryptic tone. So far hundred of tiles have been discovered, but the identity of its creator or the purpose of his or her agenda is unclear.


Photo credit: shoehorn99/Flickr

It is believed that the creator was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s science fiction story “The Toynbee Convector,” which alludes to an idea proposed by Arnold J. Toynbee that for humankind to survive, it must always aim to achieve far beyond what is practically possible in order to reach something barely within reach. Perhaps the creator wants to spread the message that humans should adopt Toynbee's idea and strive to colonize Jupiter. Such themes were touched upon in Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” about a manned mission to Jupiter, where the character of Dr. Dave Bowman undergoes accelerated aging, dies, and is reborn as a “star child” back on Earth.

The first Toynbee tile appeared in the 1980s in Philadelphia, based on which it is believed that the anonymous artist is a resident of Philadelphia. Most of the tiles are confined in an area bounded by Kansas City, Missouri, in the west; Boston, Massachusetts, in the north; Washington, D.C, in the south; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the east. Exceptions include a couple of cities in South America such as Rio di Janeiro (Brazil), Santiago (Chile), and Buenos Aires (Argentina), but it’s difficult to say whether these far out tiles are original or made by copycats.


Map showing the location of Toynbee Tiles.

For a while, the primary suspect was a man identifying himself as James Morasco, although the name is quite likely a pseudonym. Morasco contacted various talk shows and newspapers in 1983 with his theory of colonizing Jupiter with the dead inhabitants of Earth, claiming to have come across the idea while reading a book by historian Arnold Toynbee. That "James Morasco" is indeed an alias was confirmed when the only James Morasco in Philadelphia died in 2003 without knowing anything about the tiles, while the messages continued to appear long after he was dead.

In 2011, four Philadelphia residents made a documentary titled “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles”, in which they presented a reclusive Philadelphia resident Severino "Sevy" Verna as a suspect. The movie claims that Verna placed the tiles through a hole in the floor of his car while broadcasting a message via short wave radio about his theories. The film makers believe that Verna was the man behind "James Morasco", although they fail to provide any hard evidence.

The tiles are deployed by an ingenious method. They are wrapped in tar paper and placed on a busy street. As cars drive over the tiles, they are pressed into the road surface. Eventually, the tar paper wears away, exposing the message. Many tiles have since been destroyed in the course of regular road maintenance.

Toynbee Tiles have achieved a cult status. There are now dozens of websites dedicated to the phenomenon, discussing theories, searching for answers and trying to unravel the mystery. In 2015, the Streets Department of Philadelphia declared Toynbee Tiles as street art and hinted at the possibility of saving a few, but only if there is a fast and affordable method for removing them.


Photo credit: Steve Weinik


Photo credit: Steve Weinik


Photo credit: ccbarr/Flickr


Photo credit: ccbarr/Flickr


Photo credit: Kevin Riley/Flickr


Photo credit: shoehorn99/Flickr


Photo credit: Lord Jim/Flickr


Photo credit: Matt/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Weird US / /

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