Updated: Mar 2, 2020
The Toynbee Plaques - better known as the Toynbee Tiles - are a mystery I stumbled into in the wee small hours of the morning around 2007 that I hadn't been able to stop thinking about since. As is always the case with me, it was a picture I discovered first that drew me in - the odd mosaic-style design embedded into a pavement somewhere - and before I knew it,
I was twenty websites deep trying to find out more about these bizarre little installations.
There's several hundred of these tiles that have been discovered in the US and South America, and their construction is all roughly the same; created from lino flooring and the goo used to fill cracks in asphalt, whoever is making and installing the Toynbee Tiles knows what they're doing in terms of creating something that will last for years, despite being walked upon.
Each Toynbee Tile has a message on it, for example:
IN MOViE 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
IN KUBRICK'S 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
There's also the odd 'side-bar' texts beneath the main tile in some cases, with messages
AND IF THIS IDEA SURVIVES
AFTER ALL, MAKE THOSE
HELLIONS PAY FOR WHAT
THEY'VE DONE. I'M BEGGING
YOU. THANK YOU
MURDER EVERY JOURNALIST. I BEG YOU.
The tiles started appearing in the 1980s on pavements in America, notably Philadelphia and beyond and nobody knew why. What was the message? What was the point? Who was the mystery tiler? Was it a guerrilla art installation? Maybe a couple of stoned hipsters making tiles for laughs or something more serious?
Back when I originally stumbled upon this mystery online in 2007, all I had to go on then were a few very old Geocities- type websites and photos of the Toynbee Tiles. Some of the tiles’ locations were documented, but mostly not.
For reasons including the preservation of my own sleep hygiene, I bookmarked a load of these old sites and resolved to return to this mystery in the future. I often find this is useful when you discover seemingly ‘unsolved’ internet mysteries; in my case, I must keep researching until I find some definitive answers but often if it’s too soon, conclusions can’t yet be found. What you need to do is save any sources and research that you’ve gathered so far and wait a couple of years, which allows for witnesses, theories, other researchers, tweets and blog posts to ‘come out of the woodwork’ as it were, and you’ll find lots more has been discovered and documented in your absence.
In the case of myself finding out about the Toynbee Tiles, this strategy worked a damned treat, as in 2011’s Sundance Film Festival, the film Resurrect Dead was released - a documentary about a handful of enthusiasts that have been searching for the purpose behind the mysterious Toynbee Tiles, detailing the story behind their hunt for the individual responsible and the meaning of the messages contained in the installations.
At first glance, it appears to be a person who sticks tiles to pavements - not so exciting you might think - but the story within Resurrect Dead is a lot more complex, certainly more than I thought initially. I don’t want to detail too much more to save revealing spoilers, but if you’ve got some spare time and don’t want to tumble down this particular rabbit hole yourself, the documentary summarises everything you need to know, and you can find it on YouTube by clicking here ( https://youtu.be/1MAsB_tJ_jk ).
Written by EJ ( https://twitter.com/ejtheginger ) who has never laid any tiles, but did graffitti a willy on the walls of a public bathroom one time in the 90s.