The Greatest Guerrilla Art Mystery You've Never Heard Of (But May Have Walked Over)

The curious case of the Toynebee Tiles and their continuing legacyThe most culturally revered street art is often wrapped in an element of intrigue: Banksy's quasi-anonymity has garnered as much attention as his artwork. But what happens when that intrigue swells far beyond the bounds of mere mystery and consumes the very message of the art?The biggest guerrilla art movement of our time is older than Banksy, more geographically promiscuous than JR, and has remained unsolved for nearly three decades. Known as the Toynbee Tiles, they are plaques embedded in asphalt, usually at major intersections and pedestrian crosswalks, each containing a variation of the inscription:

TOYNBEE IDEAIN KUBRICK'S 2001RESURRECT DEADON PLANET JUPITERThe first Toynbee Tile dates back to the early 1980s. Today, more than 250 have been discovered in more than two dozen North American cities as well as in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, many inscribed with instructions to make more tiles. Even the material they're made of was a mystery until recently, when it was determined to be a rare kind of linoleum combined with asphalt sealant.The message itself, cryptic and seemingly nonsensical, has been the subject of much speculation, from political conspiracy theories to religious dogmatism to space-travel futurism. Most look to the obvious references for clues-Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who is best known for his 12-volume synthesis of world history, analyzing the rise and fall of civilizations.The first tiles appeared shortly after the release of David Mamet's 4 A.M, in which the protagonist-a radio show host based on Larry King-talks to a caller who claims that Kubrick's movie is based on the writings of Toynbee and contains a hidden plan to recreate humanity on Jupiter. Though this call was fictional, in 1983 a social worker named James Morasco called The Philadelphia Inquirer with an oddly similar (and admittedly wacky) idea for resurrecting humans on Jupiter. Were these two incidents related? It would seem so, but how?Despite ample media attention and countless efforts, no one has gotten to the bottom of it. In 2001, a Toynbee Tile enthusiast even tracked down Katharina Kubrick, Stanley's daughter, on a Google Usenet group to ask if her father had known anything about the mystery. She said he hadn't.

Though many attribute the original tiles to the social worker James Morasco, that theory doesn't quite add up. Not only does his widow firmly deny he had anything to do with the tiles, but new tiles have continued to emerge in the years after his death in 2003. The newer ones vary on the inscription to read:

TOYNBEE IDEAMOVIE 2001RAISE DEADPLANET JUPITERIn 2005, Philadelphia artist and researcher Justin Duerr began working on a documentary about the mystery. The film is yet to be released and its website has been stagnant since 2006, but it led some to surmise that the newer tiles featuring the word "movie" were laid by the filmmakers in an attempt to pique interest in their project. (In an NPR interview, Duerr denied this and attributed the tiles to a copy-cat.)But even if the newer tiles were a guerrilla marketing campaign, it still begs the question of who laid the tiles between 2003, when Morasco died, and 2005, when work on the film began. If we believe Morasco did lay most of the tiles, he would have been in his seventies when the bulk of them were deployed. Was he, on a social-worker's salary, really hopping around to over two dozen cities laying tiles that late in his life?What makes this mystery so fascinating is that, unlike traditional street art, it no longer embodies a clear social or political statement by a single author. Instead, it has taken on a life of its own, one in which the medium has truly become the message-these plaques continue replicating, driven, presumably, by several people acting without a real understanding of what the original message was. Indeed, the Toynbee Tiles mystery thrives on its own, inspiring speculation, intrigue and interpretation to this day, which may have been the creator's original intention after all.And in a way, though not on Jupiter, he-or she-has been resurrected.Guest blogger Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired U.K. and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter. Photos by Eric Haag.

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott are getting company. Statues of the famous men are scattered across Central Park in New York City, along with 19 others. But they'll finally be joined by a few women.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth are the subjects of a new statue that will be on display along The Mall, a walkway that runs through the park from 66th to 72nd street. It will be dedicated in August of next year, which is fittingly the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote.

Currently, just 3% of statues in New York City are dedicated to women. Out of 150 statues of historical figures across the city, only five statues are of historical women, including Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harriet Tubman.

Keep Reading Show less

It's easy to become calloused to everyday headlines with messages like, "the world is ending" and "everything is going extinct." They're so prevalent, in fact, that the severity of these statements has completely diminished to the point that no one pays them any attention. This environmental negativity (coined "eco-phobia") has led us to believe that all hope is lost for wildlife. But luckily, that isn't the case.

Historically, we have waited until something is near the complete point of collapse, then fought and clawed to bring the species numbers back up. But oftentimes we wait so long that it's too late. Creatures vanish from the Earth altogether. They go extinct. And even though I don't think for a single second that we should downplay the severity of extinction, if we can flip this on its head and show that every once in a while a species we have given up on is actually still out there, hanging on by a thread against all odds, that is a story that deserves to be told. A tragic story of loss becomes one about an animal that deserves a shot at preservation and a message of hope the world deserves to hear.

As a wildlife biologist and tracker who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of animals I believe have been wrongfully deemed extinct, I spend most of my time in super remote corners of the Earth, hoping to find some shred of evidence that these incredible creatures are still out there. And to be frank, I'm pretty damn good at it!

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less
via / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less