Look Down: How Toynbee Tiles Invaded (And Disappeared From) Pittsburgh Streets

Jun 12, 2018

There's a decades-old mystery underfoot in Downtown Pittsburgh: small tiles placed in busy intersections that decry the media and ponder resurrection.

The colorful linoleum mosaics (about the size of licence plates) were constructed by an anonymous artist, dropped into the streets, and embedded right into the pavement through heat and the pressure of passing cars. The tiles convey hand-cut messages, such as:

"MEDIA MUST BE REDUCED TO ASH"

"TO PUNISH THEM ALL FOR WHAT THEY HAVE DONE"

"TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICK'S 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER"

Toynbee Tiles, as they're known, began in Philadelphia sometime in the 1980s. Today, they can be found all across the United States, and even in South America.

"They're an international phenomenon," says Melissa Marinaro, public art enthusiast and director of the Italian American program at the Heinz History Center. 

Can you spot the Toynbee tribute tile at the intersection of Grant Street and Boulevard of the Allies?
Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh was once home to at least six original tiles, but more than $4 billion in Downtown development over the last decade has meant repaving, jackhammering and ultimately, destruction.

The enduring mystique of Toynbee Tiles

So, what do the Toynbee Tiles mean, and who made them?

The answer to both questions is unclear, but the internet is rife with theories. Tile experts break down one Toynbee message into four parts:

  • Toynbee Idea: This first line of text is the namesake of the Toynbee Tile. It likely refers to 20th-Century British philosopher Arnold Toynbee, who theorized that dead particles could be brought back to life. But it could also recall sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury's 1984 short story "Toynbee Convector" about time travel.
  • In Kubrick's 2001: This part of the message is a clear nod to director Stanley Kubrick's epic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which suggests the next step of human evolution as life on Jupiter.
  • Resurrect Dead: The artist might believe that Arnold Toynbee's theory could become (or already is) a reality...
  • On Planet Jupiter: ...And that eternal life awaits on Jupiter. 

This Toynbee Tile, photographed in 2002 in Washington, D.C., portrays the classic message found on most originals.
Credit Erifnam / Wikipedia Commons

Whatever message each tile imparts, Marinaro says they're prime examples of visionary art. 

"Usually, the artists who are interpreting these creative pieces believe that they're getting messages from somewhere: from God, from a god, from a being of higher power," she says. 

Marinaro also theorizes that a self-taught artist made the tiles.

"I think that the design is indicative of what we see in a lot of self-taught art, which is that typically letters are in all-capitals," she explains. "And it also encompasses the full design of the tile, where every inch of the usable space is populated with some kind of design. And you see a lot of primary colors, as well: whites, reds, blues and yellows."

The artist remains unknown and is probably no longer producing new work. The 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles recounts the efforts of a group of tile enthusiasts working to identify the tiler, using a south Philadelphia home address printed on a Toynbee Tile in Chile. 

The owner of that home, described by his neighbors as a recluse, never answered the door. But the amateur sleuths found small "test" tiles all around the neighborhood.

And based on interviews, they discovered that the Toynbee tiler also used shortwave radio broadcasts, mailers and television antenna interception to spread his message about the Toynbee idea. He might have called in to Larry King Live in the '80s using an alter ego.

But how did the suspected artist spread the tiles in more than a dozen cities without detection? Neighbors said the south Philadelphia man's car was missing floorboards, the perfect way to drop tiles in busy streets and speed away.

Mapping Pittsburgh's Toynbee Tiles

The locations of at least six original Toynbee Tiles once formed an "L" over eight blocks of Smithfield Street and Forbes Avenue. Today, the streets are jet black and the paint is a striking white, signs of recent repaving. Some intersections that were once concrete are now brick. 

The streetscape can be deceiving: a small storm grate or a stray magazine seem Toynbee Tile-esque from afar, and brief crosswalk times force passersby not to linger too long.

Beyond the "L" are six tiles spanning a few blocks on Boulevard of the Allies between Market and Grant streets, but they're not Toynbee. Copycats, like an artist who goes by House of Hades, have assumed the original tiler's mission, distributing tribute tiles in this part of Pittsburgh, as well as New York City and Washington, D.C.

One of Pittsburgh's tribute tiles depicts a wordless, moonlit street next to another piece credited to House of Hades. 

Two tiles, likely from different artists, compete for space at the intersection of Boulevard of the Allies and Cherry Way.

Marinaro says imitation is flattery, and believes the presence of Toynbee Tiles in Pittsburgh (original or otherwise) suggests the city is a valuable location for proselytising. 

"We're recognized as some kind of major market in which this would be viewed by a lot of people," says Marinaro. "That was part of the intention ... They wanted large masses of people to be able to see this message."

To salvage and preserve, not to solve

That message is disappearing. Toynbee Tile fans across Pittsburgh have long-lamented their demise, but not all of the city's original tiles are buried beneath asphault.

In 2016, city officials working on a construction project on Smithfield Street offered to slice two tiles from the pavement and donate them to the Heinz History Center, one an original Toynbee and the other a House of Hades tribute. Marinaro personally advocated for their procurement, because she says she believes that the Toynbee Tiles are an important part of Pittsburgh's history of public art.

An original Toynbee Tile from the intersection of Smithfield and Fourth is archived at the Heinz History Center.
Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA

The Heinz Center had a rare opportunity, Marinaro explains. Public art can be so permanent – or so ephemeral – that it's often impractical to salvage. Muraled walls can be photographed and grafitti can be replicated, but original pieces are often lost to the abuses of weather, time and construction. 

"The fact that we have some here at the museum means that even if we get to a point where they don't exist in the street anymore, we still have a record of it here," she says.

The rescued tiles now rest in a storage room, set in hundreds of pounds of concrete and bound together in wooden frames. They're weathered from years of abuse, tire marks rippling across linoleum that has blackened and separated with age.

Marinaro says a conservator recently stopped by to assess the tiles and recommend options for their preservation, but that likely won't include explanation.

"There's magic in not knowing, and I think it's a great exploration of the imagination to try to come up with our own narrative," Marinaro says, adding that Pittsburgh possesses plenty of public art in need of attention. "Pittsburgh is one of those great American cities where if you open your eyes and you look around, there's a lot of really cool things to be seen."

Currently, the Heinz Center has no plans to exhibit the tiles.