Yesterday evening some of the mysteries surrounding the Toynbee tiles, the cryptic messages embedded in roadways of cities around the U.S. and elsewhere, were illuminated at the Whitman Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Toynbee tile investigators Colin Smith and Steve Weinik, along with surprise guest Justin Duerr, provided an overview of the history of the mysterious tiles and an update on recent developments.
The tiles in question are linoleum rectangles that began appearing in the early 1980s inlaid in the asphalt surface of the roadways in more than a dozen U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., and three cities in South America. Most of the tiles contain some variation of the message:
IN MOVIE 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
Although many of the tiles are roughly the size of an automobile license plate, they have also been found in other formats, from narrow strips about an inch tall to large configurations of multiple tiles. The main message is sometimes accompanied by additional side text containing tirades against various organizations (particularly the media and the “feds”) or mandates to create more tiles.
The tiles’ creator and their ultimate meaning are largely unknown, although Smith, Weinik, and Duerr believe they have identified the person behind the majority of the tiles. The trio’s search for the tiler and their quest to decipher his message is documented in the 2011 film, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, directed by Jon Foy. (For my 2011 review of the film, see On Technology and Media, “Uncovering What Lies Beneath.” For my interview with director Foy, see Knowledge@Wharton, “Building a Mystery: The Toynbee Tiles and Jon Foy’s Filmmaking Quest.”)
The crowd at the library consisted largely of tile enthusiasts. When asked who had seen the film, a large portion of the audience raised their hand.
Smith and Weinik explored a number of topics introduced in the documentary and provided updates and insights that have occurred subsequently.
Much of their talk covered the history of the tiles, highlighting the stylistic changes that have occurred in the tiles over the decades.
To help illustrate how the tiles are made, Weinik displayed the tar paper covering he removed from a freshly-laid tile.
Also on display were the two copies of Arnold Toynbee’s book, Experiences, in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The original tiler is believed to have read about Toynbee’s idea — that a living creature, after death, can come back to life through scientific means — in a Philadelphia Library book. He likely encountered the concept in one of the two books on display that evening.
Steve Weinik announced the launch of a new website, www.toynbeeidea.com, containing an interactive map that displays the locations of known tiles around the U.S. and South America.
Weinik and Smith also discussed what Smith described as “a crazy new development.” Tiles, which Weinik and Smith believe are the work of the original tiler, have recently appeared in southern New Jersey and contain messages very different from the classic “Toynbee idea” text. A recent tile in Margate, New Jersey, for example, contains a tirade about a representative from the region’s “Meals on Wheels” program. Although the tone echoes the type of sentiments on some of the side texts of earlier tiles, unlike the grand notion about the resurrection of dead molecules in outer space, this message is, as Weinik characterized it, “hyper local.”
Midway through their presentation, Weinik and Smith were joined by longtime Toynbee tile aficionado Justin Duerr, whose search for the identity of the tiler is the central theme of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Duerr provided new information about one of the most active groups paying homage to the original Toynbee tiler by placing similar tiles in many U.S. cities. Known as the House of Hades, the person or group behind these so-called “copycat” tiles had long remained anonymous. Duerr, however, told the audience he recently encountered the House of Hades tiler.
Duerr was performing with his band at a small venue in what he terms “a desolate area” of Buffalo, New York. There were “about nine people at this show” he said.
Knowing that many of the early House of Hades tiles appeared in Buffalo, “just as a lark” near the end of the band’s set Duerr asked the audience, “Hey, anyone here from House of Hades?” A person wearing a white ski mask raised his hand. Duerr later spoke with the man, who continued to wear the ski mask throughout their conversation, for a couple of hours about his adventures laying the tiles in various cities. “He had all kinds of stories. Some of them I’m not at liberty to tell,” Duerr reported. “It was pretty cool.” Duerr doesn’t like the common characterization of the House of Hades tiles as “copycat” tiles. “Those things are totally real. They’re their own thing, just using the [same] technique” as the earlier tiles.
As for the work of the original tiler, after a two-year period with no known activity, new tiles believed to be his work have recently appeared. “It’s pretty exciting” Weinik said. In addition to the new tiles in New Jersey, “For the first time in over ten years there are new tiles in Baltimore; Wilmington, Delaware; and New York City” as well as along the I-95 interstate highway.
After more than three decades, the mystery of the tiles continues.