Mysteries underfoot: Pedestrians have long wondered over Toynbee tiles

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Tony Tye, Post-Gazette photos

Street language A Toynbee plaque on Smithfield Street at Oliver Avenue, Downtown.

By L.A. Johnson
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

History, art and HAL 9000 all converge at the corner of Oliver and Smithfield in the form of Toynbee tiles.

Named after British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, the 150-plus colorful, linoleum tiles mysteriously embedded in street asphalt worldwide -- including Pittsburgh -- have confounded thousands for more than two decades and all carry slight variations of one basic message:

"TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOViE '2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPiTER. YOU MUST MAKE + GLUE TILES!! YOU!!!! ..." reads, in part, a license plate-sized red, white, blue and tan Toynbee tile in an Oliver Avenue crosswalk at Smithfield Street, Downtown.

A larger, similar and more colorful Toynbee tile, with shapely women's legs framing the tile's upper right corner, is several feet away in a Smithfield Street crosswalk at Oliver Avenue.

"TOYNBEE IDEAS IN KUbrick's 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER," is another common variation of the tile message.

Toynbee tiles are guerrilla art versions of crop circles, one of the mysteries of Pittsburgh that Michael Chabon hasn't weighed in on. The tiles, or plaques as some call them, have taken on a certain cult status, and tile aficionados have spent years trying to discover the meaning and the man (or woman) behind them.

Justin Duerr, a Toynbee tile fanatic, renaissance man and Philadelphia house painter, stars in the upcoming documentary "Resurrect Dead," about his search for the Toynbee tiler. He claims to know the tiler's identity, but he's not naming names just yet.

"I can say that the person that did it was very sincere about the message, and it definitely is not nonsense," says Mr. Duerr, 29, who also is an artist, musician, writer and poet. "Was it hard to solve [the mystery]? Definitely. I have to say, at least in this case, truth is stranger than fiction, and it's not a letdown."

In addition to Pittsburgh, tiles have been spotted in Philadelphia; Toledo, Ohio; New York City; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Boston; Atlantic City, N.J.; Chicago; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; Detroit and even Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile.

At one time as many as six had been seen in Downtown Pittsburgh, according to, a Web site last updated in 2003 that lists tile locations, theories and other trivia.

"I'm thrilled by the idea of this kind of guerrilla art that's not in your face and very subtle," says Miriam Greenberg, 25, of Austin, Texas, who reported four of the Pittsburgh Toynbee tiles to the Web site. "You have to be very alert and even then, you don't know what it means, but you think it's something worth thinking about."

Other Pittsburgh tile sites include a Smithfield Street crosswalk near Forbes Avenue and a Forbes Avenue crosswalk near Ross Street.

"I love the permanence of it," says Ms. Greenberg, a University of Pittsburgh graduate now working on her master's of fine arts in poetry at the University of Texas. She first saw the tiles in 2000 or 2001.

However, tiles that used to be visible on Liberty Avenue across from the Hilton and on Seventh Avenue at Smithfield Street have been paved over.

That, sadly, is the fate of many of the tiles listed on the site, Mr. Duerr says.

He finds the tiles interesting as a social experiment, because of their message and from a purely artistic standpoint. He appreciated them as art first because of their superb colors and placement and photographed as many as he could, which can be viewed at

Started in Philadelphia

The tiles date back to 1983 and started in Philadelphia. Mr. Duerr believes in the single-tiler theory and says the last tile in the original style appeared in Philadelphia around 2001 or 2002. Philadelphia also has a copycat tiler who has placed some since 2003.

Mr. Duerr first discovered the tiles in 1993 when he walked the streets of Philadelphia as a courier and initially thought they were "just a Philly thing." However, after the Web site went up in the mid-1990s and he learned they were in other cities, he became fascinated with them.

Theories abound about what Arnold Toynbee has to do with Stanley Kubrick's landmark film "2001: A Space Odyssey" and resurrecting the dead on Jupiter.

"People wonder what it means and how it got there," he says. "It is a wild thing that sends your mind spinning if you let it go. There's also this kind of pop culture thing with it. ... It's like high-brow sci-fi."

"I really like that it's not a clear-cut message that can be agreed with or disagreed with," Ms. Greenberg says.

"What the hell are these?" was artist Thad Kellstadt's reaction when he first noticed Toynbee tiles around Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s.

"They were obviously put there for a reason, a distinct reason, not just graffiti," says Mr. Kellstadt, 28, of Bloomfield. "In terms of guerrilla art, I think it's great. They're reaching for a higher purpose, a higher audience. It's definitely a very specific thing that only a few people are going to know about."

Toynbee and Kubrick

Toynbee's theories are demonstrated in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," Mr. Duerr says.

"The thrust of this whole thing is all the dead who ever lived on the planet Earth can be resurrected on the planet Jupiter by bringing molecules back together," he says. "The tiles are an attempt to promote this idea."

In David Mamet's 1983 play "Four A.M.," a caller to a late-night radio talk show connects Toynbee's theory -- that science has the ability to bring all dead molecules back to life on the planet Jupiter -- to Arthur C. Clarke's novel, "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Kubrick's film, and asks how his organization can publicize the theory.

Mr. Duerr doesn't believe the famed playwright got the idea for the work from the tiles, but he and the documentary's director-writer, Jon Foy, hope to interview Mr. Mamet for their film to find out.

David Byrne, a public artist and co-founder of the group Talking Heads, talked of the tiles in a 1997 Public Art Review article.

"I'm more interested in people who write elaborate messages -- visionary graffiti. ... In Washington, D.C., there's a guy who makes these messages that he feels strongly about and imbeds them in concrete and puts them in the sidewalk," Mr. Byrne says. "I don't know how the hell he does it, but they're there. It does have to do with congruencies that he sees between Arnold Toynbee's history and the movie '2001.' That kind of graffiti really touches me and fascinates me."

No one has ever admitted seeing someone actually place one of the tiles. However, in 2000, Mr. Duerr did stumble upon a freshly placed tile -- hand-cut linoleum pieces, asphalt crack filler and a wood glue-like substance between sheets of tar paper -- on a street in Philly's Chinatown neighborhood at 4 in the morning.

He yelled "Toynbee idea!" into the darkness, hoping he could lure the artist out of the shadows, but no one came forward.

Based on his fresh-tile discovery, Mr. Duerr realized that the weight of car traffic over time presses the tile into the pavement, leaving the message once the tar paper wears away.

"The method of applying the tiles to the street and just the longevity of it, that's it's biggest power," he says. "Even if you don't notice it, you'll notice it two years later."

Toynbee and Clarke were fellow countrymen, and Clarke may well have read some Toynbee. Mr. Duerr discovered that freshly laid tile at about 4 a.m., and David Mamet's play is titled "Four A.M." Hmmmmmmm. What can it all mean?

"I'm skeptical of the concept of the dead being physically resurrected on the planet Jupiter," he says. "But if you take it as a metaphor, Kubrick was definitely trying to say something at the end of that movie about spiritual regeneration, and Arnold Toynbee talks about that a lot. There is a connection, if only one in loose metaphor."

He's fairly certain he knows the original Toynbee tiler's identity, and he will reveal it in the documentary, which is slated for release in summer 2007. He and Mr. Foy also are still trying to get interviews with Mr. Byrne and Mr. Clarke. They're even hoping to interview the original Toynbee tiler for the film.

"We've never talked to the person who did them," he says. "We've had one-way communication, but haven't heard anything back from the person."

Even so, they're confident they're right. The clues they've gathered heavily point toward one, still silent, person.

Mr. Duerr expects the documentary to be part mystery, part art and part conspiracy.

"You couldn't write a stranger story," he says. "It's just extremely bizarre on every level, just the fact that this person was trying to publicize this idea and succeeded -- quite well. It's really an ingenious thing."

Miriam Greenberg of Texas is listed on the Web site as having spotted some of the "Toynbee plaques" in Pittsburgh. Here she crouches next to one on Smithfield Street and Oliver Avenue.
Click photo for larger image.

L.A. Johnson can be reached at or 412-263-3903.


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