New “Toynbee Tile” Sighting


Walter’s Art Gallery crosswalk, North Charles and Centre Street
Spotted: October 15,

by Tom Warner (Baltimore Or Less)

Heads up to my observant pal Brian Manning (poet, hipster librarian and once-and-future Portlandian who writes the blog bmoretrashy) for spotting this Toynbee Tile at the Walters Art Museum crosswalk, Centre and N. Charles Street, in the heart of Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Though many of these cryptic tiles have been spotted here (and in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and other Northeast American cities –  not to mention across the world), this appears to be a fresh marking. For example, this tile has the added all caps text “HITMAN FROM VENEZUELA + CUBA FAILED TO MURDER ME TWICE, SO THEY SENT A FAGGOT CELL TO MURDER MY MOTHER,” as well as the inscriptions “YOU MUST LAY TILE – ALONE -> FEDS” AND “LAY TILE ALONE – FEDS.”

Some of the previous Baltimore sightings included a 1999 sighting of two Toynbee Tiles at 200 West Lexington Street. The Baltimore Sun even ran an article about the tiles sometime around 2001 (how fitting, given the Kubrick Space Odyssey connection!).

Jon Foy's 2011 documentary, "Resurrect Dead."

Jon Foy’s 2011 documentary, “Resurrect Dead.”

For those unfamiliar with this mysterious phenomenon (and I count myself among those who walk in darkness about this ongoing urban legend-in-the-making), check out the “Toynbee Tiles” Wikipedia entry, Phillyist’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Toynbee Tiles – Part I,” or Alan Bellows excellent post “The Mysterious Toynbee Tiles” (September 25, 2005) at Or, if you get Netflix, watch Jon Foy’s 2011 documentary film Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.

To summarize it in a nutshell (pun possibly intended), I quote here from Alan Bellows’ post:

In 1992, a chap in Philadelphia by the name of Bill O’Neill starting noticing strange tiles randomly embedded in local roads. They were generally about the size of a license plate, and each had some variation of the same strange message: “TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUbricK’s 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPiTER.”


They varied a bit in color and arrangement, but they were all made of an unidentifiable hard substance, and many had footnotes as strange as the message itself, such as “Murder every journalist, I beg you,” and “Submit. Obey.” Some were accompanied by lengthy, paranoid diatribes about the newsmedia, jews, and the mafia.

So Bill started asking around about these tiles, but nobody knew anything about their origin or meaning. So, he created a website devoted to the mysterious tiles, and in doing so learned that it is not just a local phenomenon. Similar tiles have appeared in many US cities, including Washington DC, Pittsburgh, New York City, Baltimore, Boston, and many more. Some have even shown up in South America; in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. To date, about 130 tiles have been discovered. Somehow, someone is managing to embed these tiles into public roads– some of which are busy 24/7– without being spotted.

The tiles all mention “Toynbee,” most likely Arnold J. Toynbee, a religious historian born in England in 1889. Some of the tiles mention Kubrick, the filmmaker responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a movie that made implications that a man was reborn on a mission to Jupiter, not exactly resurrected. There is only one known intersection between the works of Toynbee and Kubrick, and it’s pretty circumstantial: Toynbee’s writings spoke of a man named Zoroaster who conceived the idea of monotheism, and this name also occurs in the title of the famous 2001: A Space Odyssey theme song; it’s entitled “Thus Spoke Zoroaster.”

[The “Thus Spoke Zoroaster” attribution above is a reference to the initial “Sunrise” segment of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which dealt with like-minded ideas of the “eternal recurrence of the same.” – Tom Warner, BoL]

The stencil stylings are reminiscent of the similar, but unrelated, underground Stencil Street Art Project launched in the 1990’s by Baltimore’s own Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective (CCC),  which was a collective of anonymous individuals “dedicated to revealing the secret messages embedded in our society’s institutions, the media, and our daily lives.” (It somehow tied in with their “Nine New Museums” project.  A 1996 press release announced the creation of nine new museums named after the nine classical Greek muses and was accompanied by a series of street stencils at precisely chosen locations around Baltimore – one of the stencils, for The Museum of the Future (not to be confused with Ralph Kramden’s “Chef of the Future“) was laid in 1982 right around the corner from the Walters Art Gallery at 527 North Charles Street, the former home of the Empire Salon; each stencil functioned as “a curious aesthetic marker to the general public, and carried a secret message to particular individuals and/or social groups.” For more on the CCC and the street stencil project, see my Accelerated Decrepitude post “Link: A Remembrance of Local Arts Scenes Past.”)

Related Links:

“Toynbee Tiles” NPR story (2006)

 New York Times story (April 25, 1999)

“What Is It?” (Internet Archives)

Toynbee Tiles (Flickr)

This entry was posted in 1990s, Art, Baltimore Babylon, Mount Vernon, Museums, Neighborhoods, Roadside Attractions, Uncategorized, Urban Legends and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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