Trailing the Toynbee Tiles - Unsolved Mysteries Week


By Meredith Schneider

It’s a strange feeling, suddenly noticing something odd that’s been hiding in plain sight in a seemingly ordinary place. Take the notorious Toynbee Tiles. It was not until the 1990s that people started to really notice them, despite the fact that they’d been lying around in the open in major cities for over a decade prior to their discovery.

Photo courtesy of Erifnam.

When these tiles, with their morbid, occult messages, were finally found in over a dozen cities from New York to Kansas City and even Buenos Aires, mystery seekers all around the world started taking notice.

There had once been speculation that the tiles were created by a Philadelphia carpenter named James Morasco, but later evidence suggested that a man by the name of Severino Verna, also of Philadelphia, had been using this name as an alias. The tiles were first photographed in the late 1980s, but the first known mention in mainstream media was in The Baltimore Sun in 1994. Newer tiles have been found to be laid as recently as 2008, however it is unlikely that they can be attributed to the original artist.

So far, the only accepted facts about the tiles have been limited to what can be seen with the naked eye. Colin Smith – who produced, wrote, and co-starred in the 2011, Sundance award-winning documentary Resurrect Deadexplains the phenomenon as such: “They are pieces of outsider art with radical messages about resurrecting the dead affixed through an unknown process into urban asphalt. Hundreds have appeared throughout the US and in South America for over three decades. Their creator is completely unknown, as is the meaning of their message, which reads: ‘Toynbee IdeaIn Movie 2001 — Resurrect Dead — On Planet Jupiter,’ with occasional variation and frequent, elliptical side messages.”

The message has been studied at length, and is thought to be in reference to British historian Arnold Toynbee’s 1969 book Experiences, and specifically his writings on human nature regarding the soul and the body. Another common belief is that the message is in reference to Ray Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector, a short story about how humankind must aim beyond its expectations and limits to survive in the future. Even further, Arnold Toynbee’s theory has been detected in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Smith references in his film.

Through their extensive research and exhaustive filming, the Resurrect Dead crew gradually began to find personal meaning in their quest to find substantial evidence drawing the mystery closer to reality.

“New tile discoveries,” Smith says, “brought us a profound catharsis upon discovering both new texts and new artistic styles. We followed the evolving artistic style and collection of texts with fascination. I know that the tiles mean something different to each of us: a yearn to overcome death, the desire to be heard despite massive obstacles, the need to reach out and meet like-minded souls, and I’m sure that specific parts of the tiles elicit those kinds of emotions in each of the four of us.”

As for whether the mystery of the tiles was ever solved through the documentary, there were further conclusions drawn but no solid answers. The locations of the tiles lent no significance to the mystery, past mapping out where the artist(s) had traveled to leave the tiles.

Recently, cities like Chicago have deemed the tiles as acts of vandalism, and have already begun paving over them. Kansas City’s tile disappeared completely in fresh asphalt when they built a new sports arena over it in 2005. Other tiles are simply fading away from environmental wear, rendering their messages indecipherable to future adventurers.

“If you want to see good ones in the flesh,” Smith suggests to any prospective tile-hunter, “I recommend Smithfield Avenue in Pittsburgh, which has four very cool survivors. The currently extant Cleveland tile is the biggest survivor, and another really nice one.”

But be ready to experience overwhelming hype and obsessive mystery hackers on your journey.