June 19, 2006

Toynbee Tiles

Filed under: philadelphia — ted @ 4:36 pm

This morning I spent over an hour reading about Toynbee Tiles, the strange street markings like the one above (all bearing a variation on the phrase TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICKS 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER) which are plastered all over Philadelphia. I always assumed there was a interesting story behind them — but little did I know it would be this strange.

From all accounts, the origin and meaning of the tiles is still a mystery, despite the fact that sightings go back twenty years. No one knows who is placing them — although there are some delightful theories — or how to interpret the strange message. Also, they’re all over the world, not just Philadelphia.

Most interpreters operate under the assumption that the Toynbee in the title is Arnold Toynbee, the famous meta-historian, and the reference to Kubrick comes from an episode of the colonization of Jupiter depicted in 2010: Odyssey Two (which was not directed by Kubrick). At this point, it should be clear that whoever is pasting these things onto the ground does not have a terribly firm idea of what he is talking about.

The identity of the artist is the most intriguing aspect of the mystery. First of all, it seems likely that there are two separate artists, since there are “old school” tiles and “new school” ones. The prime suspect is a man named James Morasco, who was featured in an 1983 Phildelphia Inquirer article which mentioned the colonization of Jupiter, Toynbee, and Stanley Kubrick. The article is miserably short, and no one knows much else about James Morasco. We do know, however, that whoever is pasting the tiles holds a grudge against Knight Ridder (who owned the Inquirer) — since he pasted a huge tile into the street at 16th and Chestnut detailing his feelings. (It’s no longer there; Chestnut was repaved not long ago).

Fascinated yet? How about the fact that David Mamet, in 1983, published a short play, Four A.M., which contains the following exchange:

Caller: In the movie 2001, based on the writings of Arnold Toynbee, they speak of the plan…

Int: Excuse me, excuse me, but the movie 2001 was based on the writings…

Caller: …all human life is made of molecules…

Int: …based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke…

Caller: All human…no, Greg, if you examine…

Int: …it was based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke…

Caller: Oh, Greg, No. We have the…

Int: Well, go on.

Caller: Greg: In the writings of Arnold Toynbee he discusses a plan whereby all human life could be easily reconstituted on the planet Jupiter.

Could it be David Mamet? Was Mamet reading the Inquirer?

In short, I think you have every reason to read frantically about this for an hour just like I did this morning. Here’s what to read:

  • Out of This World: A 2001 article from the Cincinnati CityBeat.
  • Toynbee the Essay: An article by a huge Toynbee Tile fanatic, which contains the entire text of the 16th and Chestnut tile, an account of an early morning when he discovered a freshly laid tile, a good guess as to how the tiles are sunk, and lots of great theorizing.
  • Resurrect Dead: A wonderful website devoted to the whole phenomenon, which I found most helpful. Be sure to check out the links page.



  1. Hey! Thanks for mentioning the website, etc. and glad you enjoyed the essay! I wish I could write a part two to that essay, but I can’t “spill the beans” with everything we’ve discovered in the making of the documentary until the film is actually done.



    Comment by Justin Duerr — November 7, 2006 @ 4:41 am

  2. There is a tile in Brazil that gives the address of a home in South Philly. It’s on 7th and Oregon. Someone went and knocked on the door and an older man answered. He denied being the Toynbee Tiler. But, I think it’s fascinating that a tile in Brazil is linked to Philly. I have been obsessed over these tiles since the early 90s.

    Comment by Jennifer Augustin — March 10, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

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