In A Nutshell
Since 1985, mysterious tiles have been showing up imbedded in streets across the United States and deep into South America. Made from linoleum, asphalt crack filler, tar paper, and glue, these tiles all bear a similar message—most read something along the lines of “TOYNBEE IDEA / IN MOVIE 2001 / RESURRECT DEAD / ON PLANET JUPITER.” Tiles are still appearing almost 30 years later, and still no one knows who’s laying them or what their cryptic messages mean.
The Whole Bushel
The Toynbee Tiles are about the size of a car’s license plate, and it’s estimated that somewhere around 450 have been imprinted into streets around the Western Hemisphere since 1985. They can be multi-colored or black and white, with block letters that become so deeply imprinted into the street that by the time they’re discovered, they can’t be removed. Who exactly was behind the original message remains a mystery, and it’s unknown whether or not they are still working, or if newer tiles are the work of numerous copycats.
The tiles are carved from pieces of linoleum that are then sandwiched between two pieces of tar paper and slathered with glue and asphalt crack filler. The tar paper hides the tiles from view; heat and pressure from passing traffic embeds them into the street by the time the tar paper wears away.
Messages vary, but there are some common threads that are seen in many of the tiles. Quite a few refer to the name “Toynbee,” giving them their collective name. “Toynbee” is Arnold Toynbee, a 20th-century British historian and government consultant whose works are mainly concerned with the rhythm and common denominators found in the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. He was also highly religious and held beliefs about the essentially good character of the human race that came through in his works and theories.
The film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, and the planet Jupiter are also commonly mentioned, though it’s never been quite clear why or what their connection to Arnold Toynbee might be. Some people have drawn parallels between the themes of the two groups of works and the interpretation of Jupiter being a major part of 2001, but there’s nothing concrete or unconditionally accepted. Drawing concrete connections is made even more difficult by the extent to which Toynbee’s works as well as 2001 can be widely interpreted.
Many of the tiles were laid within a few hours’ drive of Philadelphia, especially recent tiles. Earlier tiles were far more widespread, found throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and into the Midwest. There have also been tiles found in South America. The Midwestern tiles and the South American tiles are thought to be the work of the same individual; tiles in South America are written in Spanish, and a few Spanish tiles have shown up in America after the discovery of the ones south of the equator. The close proximity of recent tiles to Philadelphia suggests these are the work of a copycat.
For years, people have tried to figure out not just what the tiles mean, but who is behind them. And the story just gets weirder from there.
A journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer named Clark DeLeon ran a story concerning a Philadelphia native named James Morasco. Morasco, the story said, was part of an underground organization called the Minority Association, whose goal was to see Earth’s dead resurrected on Jupiter.
The problem is that the original tiles continued to appear long after Morasco died. Additionally, he and his widow were both adamant that they know nothing about it and had nothing to do with the mysterious Minority Association. And there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence tying them to either the Association or the tiles.
Now it’s thought that there are several different tiling artists working in different areas and laying tiles in distinctly different styles. The originals (and their meaning) remain a mystery, though, and conclusive proof is looking less and less likely to be found with each passing year.