For decades, the Toynbee Tiles have been appearing on the streets of Philadelphia and other cities across America bearing bizarre inscriptions — but no one knows who is behind them or what purpose they serve.
Since the 1980s, colorful license plate-sized mosaic tiles have mysteriously appeared on city streets, most commonly bearing the phrase: “TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICK’S 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.”
These strange tiles, dubbed the Toynbee Tiles, first began popping up in Philadelphia, but over the decades they have been spotted in roughly two dozen major American cities including New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C.
Before 2011, there seemed to be a gradual decline in the number of new Toynbee Tiles that were being placed. But that year saw the release of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of The Toynbee Tiles, a documentary about the tiles, and in the mid-2010s, Toynbee Tiles began reappearing in cities across the country and parts of South America.
Yet despite their decades-long prominence, it’s unclear who is behind the Toynbee Tiles, what they mean, or why they appeared in the first place.
What Are The Toynbee Tiles?
The Toynbee Tiles are described by Paste Magazine as “a public art project of indefinite purpose, made from linoleum and asphalt sealant.” Generally, it’s believed that the tiles are covered in tar paper and dropped from cars in the summer months, and that the combination of heat, asphalt sealant, and foot traffic helps to affix them to the street and wear the paper down.
The tiles are colorful mosaics, roughly the size of a license plate. Originally, they all sported a version of the original phrase, “TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICK’S ‘2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER,” though some of the more recent ones — since the 2010s revival — feature phrases like, “HOUSE OF HADES, THE RESURRECTION OF TOYNBEE’S IDEA IN SOCIETY ‘2012.”
It isn’t clear if these new tiles are the brain children of the original tiler or simply equally-odd copy cats. Still, the message of the original Toynbee Tiles has continued to stump the general public for nearly four decades — though there are several theories about who was behind them and what their message may have been.
The Toynbee Tiles And 2001: A Space Odyssey
The first and most obvious allusion made in the message of the Toynbee Tiles is to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film focuses on a variety of existential themes, including human evolution, the sentience and morality of artificial intelligence (AI), the dehumanization of progress, and the future of humanity, told in broad strokes through vignettes that culminate in the film’s final narrative arc.
This final arc involves an astronaut named Dave Bowman who is traveling to Jupiter with another astronaut, Frank Poole, and three others who remain in suspended animation.
There is also a supercomputer on the ship known as HAL 9000, who slowly begins to exhibit human-like emotions, prompting Dave and Frank to conclude they must shut HAL down. In retaliation, HAL successfully kills Frank and attempts to kill Dave, only for Dave to shut HAL down in the end.
Dave then arrives at Jupiter and discovers a strange monolith which, in the novel of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke, Dave notes is “hollow — it goes on forever — and, oh my God, it’s full of stars!”
Then — without getting too bogged down in the details — Dave evolves into an intergalactic being referred to as the “Star Child.”
The Toynbee Tiles, then, allude to two aspects of 2001 — the film’s director, and the mission to Jupiter. But what of the rest of the message?
What Do The Toynbee Tiles Mean?
“Toynbee” could refer to one of two things, or perhaps both. The first is a short story by Ray Bradbury, first published in a 1984 edition of Playboy, called “The Toynbee Convector.”
The story focuses on a reporter who is granted an interview with a 130-year-old man named Craig Bennett Stiles, more commonly known as The Time Traveler. In the story, it is the first interview Stiles has given since he returned from the future 100 years earlier.
Stiles claimed that he had once invented a time machine and traveled 100 years into the future to find that humanity had developed an advanced civilization and the natural environment had been restored, and though the public was initially skeptical to his claims, they could not dispute the evidence he provided.
Filled with a newfound optimism about the future, humanity began to work towards creating the utopia Stiles described, and succeeded. The timeline has now caught up to the time of Stiles’ initial journey to the future, and his utopian dream has become a reality.
Then, he reveals to the reporter the truth — he lied. He had never gone to the future, but knew that if he could convince the world he had and that he had found a utopia there, it could become a reality.
But the short story’s title, “The Toynbee Convector,” which is also the name of Stiles’ time machine, is itself a reference to English historian and author Arnold Joseph Toynbee, who, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was often criticized for asserting that myths and metaphors are as valuable as factual data in his works.
Toynbee was fascinated with the role of religion in shaping humanity’s history, and through his analysis of the rise and fall of 26 different civilizations reached the conclusion that most civilizations collapse because of nationalism, militarism, and tyranny.
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”
Still, while the allusions and references made in the Toynbee Tiles can be easily traced, actually deciphering what they’re meant to mean in combination has remained mostly elusive. And the only other name that can be attached to the Toynbee Tiles doesn’t explain much more.
That name, according to a 1983 Philadelphia Inquirer report, is James Morasco, who founded a group known as the Minority Association — a group that wanted to colonize Jupiter by transporting Earth’s dead there, changing Jupiter’s atmosphere, and reviving the dead by bringing their molecules back to life.
The concept, Morasco said, came from reading one of Arnold Toynbee’s books, and is also depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Minority Association, The Toynbee Tiles, And Reviving The Dead On Jupiter
While Morasco did indeed contact newspapers and talk shows hoping to discuss his ideas about colonizing Jupiter, many have expressed doubt that he was behind the Toynbee Tiles. His group never grew to more than four members, Atlas Obscura reports, and any newspapers or talk shows he contacted about discussing his ideas laughed him out of the room.
One theory put forth in Resurrect Dead suggested that the original tiler may have been a Philadelphia resident by the name of Severino “Sevy” Verna. Per a Philadelphia Inquirer report, the team found evidence that small “proto-tiles” had been laid near Verna’s residence, and there were also claims that Verna had fashioned a hole in the bottom of his car so he could drop the tiles discreetly.
However, Verna has denied any involvement — and this theory still offers no explanation for the copycat tiles that have appeared in recent years. Even after a years-long investigation, the documentarians behind Resurrect Dead were unable to confirm the identity of the Toynbee tiler.
For now, it seems like the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles may go forever unsolved, though many of the tiles still decorate the streets of Philadelphia.
After learning about the Toynbee Tiles and their strange messages about Jupiter, check out these 25 photos of the giant planet that capture its chaotic beauty. Or, see these 40 photos of stunning street art from around the world.