because a good idea never grows old…it’s just reborn
Baltimore, May 5, 2014 – So many new “Toynbee Tiles” have been spotted around town lately – especially in the Mount Vernon area – that Baltimore Or Less feels compelled to consolidate all previous postings into this latest update on the pop-cultural street art phenomenon, complete with a geographic guide to where to find these curious installations. – Tom Warner (Baltimore Or Less)
Mount Vernon may be the new home of “Toynbee Tile” sightings. Though many of these cryptic tiles have been spotted here (and in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and other Northeast American cities – not to mention all over the world), there have been some two dozen spotted in Baltimore over the years – with at least seven “new” tile markings popping up in the last eight months, all within the half-mile radius of Mount Vernon stretching from the intersection of Eutaw Street and W. Franklin Street to Calvert and E. Centre Street.
All “Toynbee Tiles” share a common message: a conflation of statements linking “TOYNBEE IDEA,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (referenced as either “KUBRICK’S 2001” or “MOVIE 2001”), “RESURRECT DEAD” (or “RAISE DEAD”), and the “PLANET JUPITER.” They also share variations on instructions to “LAY TILE ALONE,” usually addressed as a warning to the “FEDS.” Each tile also features individual “footnotes” featuring rants and commentary about various conspiracy theories.
According to the DIY web site Destructables (destructables.org), the tiles are durable “Asphalt Mosaics” made out of two kinds of floor covering material: the tile text is made using Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT) and the tile background is made using “true” linoleum (which is made from flax fiber and linseed oil) . The tiles are then affixed to the street using Asphalt Crack Filler, an acrylic-based liquid tar used for filling cracks in driveways, roads, sidewalks and paths. (It does not work on concrete, brick or cobblestone.) When well set, the tiles are extremely hard to remove from the asphalt, though that hasn’t stopped some putty knife-wielding art thieves from trying to do exactly that (see “Value in Toynbee Tiles? Art Thieves Think So,” hiddencityphila.org, September 6, 2012)
But before we get started looking at this spate of new sightings…
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, TOYNBEE?
Countless questions remain about the Toynbee Tiles: Are we standing on some sort of interplanetary message? Who is planting these tiles? What are they made of? How do they get away with planting them on busy city streets? And just what the heck do filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the planet Jupiter and religious historian Arnold J. Toynbee have in common? Not to mention sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and playwright David Mamet (more on that later)?
For those unfamiliar with this mysterious street art 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,” John Stoehr’s “Feature: The Toynbee Tiles” Clip Pile blog, or Alan Bellows damned excellent post “The Mysterious Toynbee Tiles” (September 25, 2005) at damninteresting.com. Here’s an excerpt from Alan Bellows’ post that summarizes the tiles phenomenon:
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 also a reference to the initial “Sunrise” segment of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the book by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which dealt with like-minded ideas of the “eternal recurrence of the same.”
For more on Toynbee Tiles, be sure to check out the links listed at the end of this post.
The documentary tries to find the person or persons responsible for the tiles and makes the case that it may have started in Philadelphia and that it may have been a recluse named Severino “Sevy” Verna, who placed the tiles through a hole in the floor of his car while broadcasting a short-wave radio message about his theories. The filmmakers believe Verna also may have used the alias of James Morasco.
In 1983, Philadephia Inquirer writer Clark DeLeon mentioned Morasco’s attempts to contact local media about his reanimation theories (“Theories: Wanna Run That By Me Again?”). As John Stoehr wrote in his “The Toynee Tiles” article for Cincinnatti CityBeat (August 2-August 8, 2001):
Morasco was reportedly a social worker who believed we could colonize Jupiter “by bringing all the people on Earth who had ever died back to life and then changing Jupiter’s atmosphere to allow them to live.” Morasco discovered these ideas while reading the works of Arnold Toynbee. He also believed Toynbee’s ideas of resurrecting dead people’s molecules were depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s monumental film of regeneration and growth, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Kubrick’s “monumental film” addressed that theme of “regeneration and growth” in the journey to Jupiter at the end of 2001 when Keir Dullea’s character Dr. Dave Bowman undergoes accelerated aging, dies, and is “reborn” as a “star child” back on Earth. On YouTube, someone named Glenn Criddle posted an excellent analysis of that (quite psychedelic) “trip” to Jupiter: “2001: Analysis of the Last 10 Minutes.” Criddle argues that the key to understanding the entire 160-minute film is contained in its final 10 minutes, as explained in the clip below.
OK, so much for critically acclaimed British director Stanley Kubrick’s connection to the tiles. But what’s the link with critically acclaimed American playwright David Mamet, you ask?
Philadelphia-based Bill O’Neill, who created a web site called “What Is It?” to document Toynbee tile sightings, reported receiving a message in 1999 from Nathan J. Mehl, who claimed to have met a man obsessed with raising the dead on earth and transporting them to Jupiter. Mehl said the man had been posting wheat-pasted hand bills similar to the tiles around Philadelphia bus stops. Mehl recalled “one tantalizing detail” about the man: he was performing short-wave radio broadcasts on a regular basis. One of those broadcasts was heard by none other than acclaimed playwright David Mamet!
In his 1985 collection of plays and monologues, Goldberg Street, Mamet wrote a skit called “4 A.M.” In it, a radio talk host listens to a man obsessing over Toynbee, 2001 and dead people!
Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 was, of course, an adaptation of a 1953 short story (“Jupiter V”) by sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke. But Clarke also shared spiritual beliefs about birth, life, death, and resurrection similar to those espoused by his contemporary Toynbee.
Then there’s Ray Bradbury’s 1984 short story “The Toynbee Convector,” which refers to a machine inspired by the historian’s notion that “any world that did not run to seize the future and shape it was doomed to dust away to the grave, in the past.” In Toynbee Tiles-“Kubrick Idea in Movie 2001” terms, this would mean humanity is right to embrace a better future by voyaging to Jupiter (as in the ending of Kubrick’s 2001) and colonizing it (as in Clarke’s “Jupiter V” story)
The plot thickens!
By the way, Bill O’Neill’s “What Is It” site is archived on the Internet Archive. Under the section “Known Locations,” which was last updated 4/6/2003, he listed sightings for Baltimore at that time – as well as two sightings in Aberdeen and Edgewood.
Also check out the related Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles Facebook page for the latest sightings and news. (Interesting stuff here; for example, I learned that in August 2006 Chicago’s Department of Transportation ordered the destruction of all Toynbee tiles.)
The Toynbee Tiles map shown above is curated by Justin Duerr, Colin Smith and Steve Weinik (who are all involved with the Resurrect Dead documentary film project) and attempts to document all Toynbee Tiles sightings around the world. The mapping app was built by Maneesha Sane using a template developed for Code for America San Francisco. Tile spotters are encouraged to contact the site and to upload photos there.
As you can see, Philadelphia is saturated with sightings, lending support to Philadelphians’ claims (at least the folks at Hidden City Philadelphia) that they are the spiritual home of the tiles (see “Resurrect Philadelphia“).
OK, following is a guide to recent Toynbee Tile activity in Charm City.
MOUNT VERNON: MD STATE LIBRARY FOR THE BLIND & PHYSICALLY HANDICAPPED
The following tile appears on the crosswalk at intersection of Park Avenue and W. Franklin Street, across from the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Where: Crosswalk at corner of Park Avenue & W. Franklin Street
Spotted: Friday, May 2, 2014
Footnotes: This example features the added all caps text (in between quotation marks) of “A REAL RESURRECTION IS EASY AND PROVED BY CAVEMAN’S FIRST [USE?] OF GENUS [GENIUS?] TOOLS.” Also, the new marking substitutes instructions to “RAISE DEAD” in place of the more common “RESURRECT DEAD.”
MOUNT VERNON: WALTERS ART MUSEUM
In October 2013, a similar Toynbee Tile was spotted in Mount Vernon at the Walters Art Museum crosswalk between Centre and N. Charles Street, as shown below:
Where: Crosswalk leading to Walters Arts Museum at corner of Centre & N. Charles Street
Spotted: October 2013
Footnotes: “HITMAN FROM VENEZUELA + CUBA FAILED TO MURDER ME TWICE, SO THEY SENT A FAGGOT CELL TO MURDER MY MOTHER.” There are also two warnings to the “FEDS” to “LAY TILE ALONE.”
H&H BUILDING @ EUTAW & W. FRANKLIN STREET
There are two tiles appearing on the crosswalks at the intersection of Eutaw and W. Franklin Street.
The tile shown below appears on Eutaw street at this intersection, directly across from the H&H Outdoor military surplus, camping equipment and clothing store. Heavy salting from our recent seemingly never-ending winter has worn away much of its text, as shown below.
Where: On Eutaw Street, corner of Eutaw & W. Franklin Street
Spotted: Friday, May 2, 2014
Footnotes: What little text I can make out mentions something about “THE HELLION,” and “SEARCHING FOR ‘MORE THAN ONE HELL’ IDEOLOGIES TO GET ‘MORE REWARDS‘.”
Catty-corner to the H&H Outdoors tile on Eutaw Street is another tile on the W. Franklin Street crosswalk directly across from the Charles Fish & Sons building, as shown below. (On a watch, this tile would be roughly 3 o’clock to the decaying tile’s 12 o’clock position if one was walking west on Franklin Street toward the H&H Building.)
Where: On W. Franklin Street, at corner of Eutaw & W. Franklin Street
Spotted: Saturday, May 3, 2014
Footnotes: This latest marking includes the curious all-caps text “YOU MUST LAY TILE. AS HELLIONS – ALL COMMUNISTS JOIN UP ‘EN MASSE’ AND GIVE YOU BEATINGS.”
The above tile was not there on May 2. So, as Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game’s afoot!” Someone – perhaps the hipsters in the Floristree concert venue-cum-art colony that inhabit the upper levels of the nearby H&H Building? – is planting fresh markings. In other words, in Baltimore the Toynbee Tiles phenomenon is the equivalent of an active volcano.
In fact, just a day after the above discovery, a Baltimore Or Less follower named Justin Ethan notified us that he had just seen a Toynbee Tile on Albemarle and Eastern Avenue in Little Italy. Lo and behold, a friend who lives in Little Italy verified Justin’s sighting; using her cell phone, she snapped the pic shown below (apologies for the graininess!).
LITTLE ITALY: ALBEMARLE & EASTERN AVENUE
Where: Albemarle & Eastern Avenue in Little Italy
Spotted: Sunday, May 4, 2014 (Thanks Justin and Holly!)
Footnotes: The footnotes here are almost exactly the same as those appearing on the tiles at N. Calvert and E. Centre Street and N. Howard and W. Mulberry Street: “YOU MUST LAY TILE AS ONLY HELLION MOVEMENTS ARE ALLOWED TO SURVIVE. ALL OTHER MOVEMENTS ARE DESTROYED.”
HOWARD & W. FRANKLIN STREET NEAR LIGHT RAIL TRACKS
As I was walking into work two days later, I spotted yet another new tile on W. Franklin Street at the intersection of Franklin and Howard Street, directly across from the light rail tracks and a stone’s throw from the St. James Place building (the former John Turnbull & Co. furniture store, now an “upscale urban living” retail and apartment complex).
Where: On W. Franklin Street, crosswalk at corner of Howard & W. Franklin Street, near light rail tracks and across from St. James Place building
Spotted: Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Footnotes: I’m not sure how to read the fragmented and (in the lower right corner) worn-away subtext. Depending on how one reads the flow and color of the text, it’s either “LAY TEXT ALONE – FEDS…OR IT DIES” or “TOYNBEE IDEA MOVIE 2001 RAISE DEAD OR IT DIES PLANET JUPITER” – the latter interpretation because the “OR IT DIES” text is the same red color as that of the TOYNBEE IDEA manifesto – followed by “I’VE GOT SO MANY ENEMIES” and “COMUNISTS [SIC] + MEDIA HELLION JEWS AGAINST [text here is worn away by street traffic or weather].”
HOWARD & W. MULBERRY STREET
This is the latest sighting (thanks to a tip by Baltimore Or Less reader Samantha), as of May 20, 2014.
Where: On Howard Street across from light rail tracks, corner of Howard & W. Mulberry Street
Spotted: May 20, 2014 (thanks for the tip, Samantha!)
Footnotes: “YOU MUST LAY TILE AS ONLY HELLION IDEAS ARE ALLOWED TO SURVIVE, ALL OTHER IDEAS ARE DESTROYED.” (Compare this text to similar tiles at Albemarle and Eastern Avenue in Little Italy and N. Calvert and E. Centre Street in Mount Vernon.)
MOUNT VERNON: CALVERT & CENTRE STREET
This tile was spotted on May 18, 2014, thanks to a tip by my friend Claire Wang. It’s notable for featuring almost the exact same text as the tiles appearing in Little Italy at the intersection of Albemarle and Eastern Avenue and the intersection of Howard and Mulberry Street near Mount Vernon.)
Where: Intersection of E. Centre & N. Calvert Street across from Nina’s Asian Cuisine
Spotted: Monday, May 18, 2014
Footnotes: “YOU MUST LAY TILE AS ONLY HELLION IDEA ARE ALLOWED TO SURVIVE. ALL OTHER MOVEMENT ARE DESTROYED. LAY TILE ALONE.” Another warning to “LAY TILE ALONE-FEDS” appears beneath the signature TOYNBEE IDEA text. (Compare this text to that appearing on the tiles sighted at the intersection of Albemarle and Eastern Avenue in Little Italy and at the corner of Howard and W. Mulberry Street.)
INNER HARBOR: CAMDEN & S. PACA STREET
This tile was spotted by Scott Carberry (see his blog “Baltimore Boy“) on September 1, 2015 when he crossed the street on his way to see an O’s game at Camden Yards at Oriole Park. Scott adds: “This tile is always part of a cordoned area free from automobile traffic on game days. If you are in Pickles Pub, you can stumble out onto it.”
Where: Camden and South Paca Street near Camden Yards at Oriole Park
Spotted: September 29, 2015 (thanks Scott Carberry!)
Footnotes: None, other than “2001” imprint in ghost writing behind other text
LEXINGTON MARKET: LEXINGTON & N. EUTAW STREET
This is another sighting spotted by Scott Carberry, and I believe it is different from a late ’90s report of two other tiles on West Lexington Street.
Where: 300 block of North Eutaw Street near Lexington Market
Spotted: September 1, 2015 (thanks Scott Carberry!)
Footnotes: Tile 1 – “HITMEN FROM VENEZUELA + CUBA FAILED TO MURDFER ME TWICE SO THEY SENT A FAGGOT CELL TO MURDER MY MOTHER LAY TILE ALONE FEDS”; Tile 2 – “A REAL RESURRECTION IS EASY AND IS PROVED BY FIRST CAVEMAN WHO MADE GENUS TOOLS.”
These are just some of the latest tile spottings around town. Past 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!). You can also check out the guide to Baltimore Toynbee Tiles posted on Google Maps.
FYI: MORE CRYPTIC STREET ART
The Toynbee Tiles 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 blog post “Link: A Remembrance of Local Arts Scenes Past.”)
BALTIMORE OR LESS IDEA: RESURRECT TOYNBEE TILES AS DOORMATS
Seeing all these (obviously copycat) tile sightings around Baltimore, I wonder why some enterprising young artisan hasn’t made doormats, placemats, keychains, beer cozies, cell phone cases and other assorted tchotchkes to capitalize on the phenomenon. I’d certainly pay someone like Spoon Popkin to make me a DamnGoodDoormat (check out her Etsy shop!) with the Toynbee Idea slogan on it – and it would further proliferate sightings, taking them from the street to the homestead! Get working on it, hipsters!
Related “Toynbee Tile” Links:
How To Make Your Own Toynbee Tile (“Asphalt Mosaics,” Destructables.org)
“New Toynbee Tile Sighting” (Baltimore Or Less, October 15, 2013)
“Toynbee Tiles” NPR story (2006)
New York Times story (April 25, 1999)
“What Is It?” (Internet Archives)
Toynbee Tiles (Flickr)
Value in Toynbee Tiles? Art Thieves Think So (Hidden City Philadelphia, Sept. 9, 2012)
Baltimore Toynbee Tiles: Google Maps
In 2007, “Sidereal” posted the placemark guide Baltimore Toynbee Tiles to Google Maps. Might make an interesting walking tour to see if the tiles are still there.