In the mid-1980s, residents of Philadelphia and several other U.S. cities began noticing strange tiles embedded in city streets and roadways. Measuring about the size of a license plate, these colorful mosaic-style plaques made of linoleum all contained some variation of the following cryptic four-line message:

TOYNBEE IDEA

IN MOViE `2001

RESURRECT DEAD

ON PLANET JUPITER

To date, hundreds of Toynbee tiles have mysteriously appeared in several American cities, including Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, Detroit, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Washington, D.C. and Margate, New Jersey, as well as in South America.

The style of the tiles has varied over the years, as have their distribution pace and locations. Recently, for example, tiles have appeared mainly in and around Philadelphia, which is where many Toynbee tile fans believe the tiler lives.

Still, after 30-plus years, this is about all anyone really knows. Just who is behind the bizarre urban street art and what the message means are still open to intense debate.

Deciphering the message

The name “Toynbee” on the tiles is believed to refer to 20th century British historian and philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee, who suggested that the afterlife isn’t automatically granted and that humans must create their own. Also relevant may be Ray Bradbury’s 1984 short story called “The Toynbee Connector,” which references Toynbee’s notion that human beings will only survive if they believe a better world is possible and strive to shape their own future.

“Movie 2001” is likely a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi film masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey” about a manned space mission to Jupiter in which one of the astronauts ages to his death and then is reborn as a fetus. The movie, co-written by Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, is widely believed to be an exploration of human evolution and the species’ destiny in the universe.

Despite the fact that the tiles vary in their wording (for instance, some swap out “movie ‘2001” for “Kubrick’s 2001”) and some bear additional messages (such as “Murder every journalist”), Toynbee tile enthusiasts believe the tiler’s main message is consistent and should be interpreted literally. That is, humans must stop expecting the heavenly afterlife promised by religions, and instead jump-start the next stage of evolution and create their own heaven by bringing dead people back to life on Jupiter.

Laying tiles

Toynbee Tile in New York City A Toynbee tile near a crosswalk at 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City. (Photo: MusikAnimal/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest mysteries is how the tiles are actually embedded in streets. A theory popularized by the 2011 documentary “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” is that the tiler tosses them onto roads through a hole in the floorboard of his or her car.

Justin Duerr, a Toynbee tile devotee who helped make “Resurrect Dead,” claims he once found a newly laid tile in Philadelphia and thinks he knows the secret. After carving a message into a piece of linoleum, the tiler apparently wraps it in tar paper and glues it together before adhering it to the street using road tar. With time, cars and the sun’s heat cause the tile to fuse into the asphalt. Eventually, traffic wears away the tar paper, allowing the message to become visible.

Ironically, embedding tiles in roads also leads to their eventual destruction. Many Toynbee tiles have worn away from millions of car tires running over them and from road maintenance. Tiles that are located closer to pedestrian crosswalks and sidewalks have fared better.

Toynbee tile watchers tend to divide them into two categories: old style and new style. Old-style tiles (which appeared roughly from 1985 to 2001 in 25 cities in the U.S. and South America) were typically colorful and included pictures and other non-text design elements.

After 2001, new-style tiles began appearing almost exclusively in Philadelphia and areas close by. They were smaller with fewer artistic flourishes. However, after 2007, old design elements began reappearing.

After a hiatus in 2011 (some say the documentary temporarily scared off the tiler), new tiles began appearing again in the Philadelphia area but also in Baltimore, New York and Wilmington, Delaware.

Check out this map of Toynbee tile locations.

It's worth noting that a number of copycat tiles that resemble Toynbee tiles but carry different messages have also shown up around the country for years.

House of Hades copycat tile House of Hades is an anonymous group that has laid Toynbee copycat tiles for years. This one is located at the intersection of H and 4th Streets NW in Washington, D.C. (Photo: evrik/Wikimedia Commons)

Artist unknown?

Are the tiles the work of one person or several? No one has ever claimed responsibility, but that hasn’t stopped people from stringing together certain clues.

In 1983, a Philadelphia man named James Morasco began contacting talk shows and was interviewed in a Philadelphia Inquirer article about his ideas for colonizing Jupiter with resurrected Earth inhabitants. He also founded an organization dedicated to that goal called the Minority Association.

In 1996, a reporter named Doug Worgul found a Toynbee tile in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. In 2003, after years of research, he called the only James Morasco listed in the Philadelphia phone book. The man’s wife said he’d died earlier that year at the age of 88 and had no knowledge of the tiles. Yet tiles have continued popping up ever since.

The “Resurrect Dead” filmmakers concluded that James Morasco is actually an alias used by a reclusive Philadelphia man named Severino “Sevy” Verna, and unveiled his identity in their documentary. One thing that led them to Verna was his Philadelphia address, which matches one written on a tile found in South America years ago.

Verna never spoke to the filmmakers. Nor has he ever come forward publicly or admitted any connection to the tiles. However, according to a 2014 interview with Steve Weinik, who worked on the film, he and his colleagues remain “extremely confident” that Verna is the guy.

Riddle solved? Maybe for some. But without absolute confirmation, this tile mystery may never be laid to rest.

Delve in deeper here.