The 13th Floor

The Strange Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles Appearing in Cities Across America

You may have seen them. You may have just walked right over them or stopped to read their message before moving on. Sometime during the 1980s, strange tiles began appearing in cities all over America as well as in four cities in South America. They’re embedded into the asphalt and contain strange almost nonsensical messages. They are called the Toynbee tiles. No one knows how these small crudely made tiles got here, and no one really knows what they are trying to say, but if you look at them long enough, you’ll know they’re trying to tell us something.

Although the tiles began making their way into photographs usually shot by curious tourists in the late-80s, they got their first media mention in the Baltimore Sun in 1994. That’s when Sun writer Rob Hiaasen wrote about seven strange tiles found on various streets in downtown Baltimore. He noted that they were far different from any street graffiti he had ever seen before. An interview with Gary Kachadourian, the then visual arts coordinator for the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, found that he knew of the tiles three years before the article was written and was clueless as to their origin. Everyone knew they were there, but no one really had the time to think about them. But were they trying to say something important?

The tiles contain the variations on the same message…





According to documentarian Justin Duerr, these are references to the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. Most of Toynbee’s work was done between 1918 and 1950. During that period, he wrote a twelve volume book series called A STUDY OF HISTORY. In this series, Toynbee traces the rise and fall of nineteen civilizations. Toynbee works from each civilization’s genesis out of primitive society and into its eventual decay.

According to Toynbee, society’s creation is driven by “Creative Minorities.” These are people who find solutions to challenges, and those who inspire others rather than compelling them to follow their lead. He argued that a society’s breakdown precedes the creation of a “universal state.” This is when the creative minority becomes a dominate minority, seeking to hold their position by force. Toynbee breaks the proletariat into two camps, external proletariat and internal proletariat. The internal proletariat is held in subjection by the dominant minority within the confines of society, while the external proletariat lives outside the “walls” in poverty and chaos growing bitter and envious while civilization begins to fail. At the time of its publishing it was highly regarded, however, after a few years the work fell into obscurity.

The second reference is to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Based on an Arthur C. Clarke novel, it is the story of a manned mission to Jupiter. There are also other possible interpretations in connection with Clarke, including his 1953 short story JUPITER V, in which the author directly references Toynbee. The Toynbee reference could also be pointing at another science fiction writer. In Ray Bradbury’s THE TOYNBEE CONVECTOR, he alludes to Toynbee’s belief that a society can survive decay by rushing to meet the future in order to create a better world.

Next to each tile are usually found smaller tiles, most instructing others to create and place their own tiles, but many of those also have bizarre messages. One such message is referred to as John Knight Ridder. John Knight Ridder was supposedly a hitman with mafia and media ties who hired the mafia to kill the author of the tiles. The author also believed the media outlets, like NBC, ordered Interpol to track him down. According to the message on the tiles, Interpol tracked the author to Dover, England where they hired goons to repeatedly harass him and his neighbors. He then ties the entire thing to a Soviet conspiracy.

As to the origin of these tiles, no one is sure, but there is some pretty unusual evidence out there. A 1983 Philadelphia Inquirer article mentions a man who contacted several local talk shows and newspapers to spread the word about “bringing the dead back to life on Jupiter”. The man making the calls went by the name James Morasco, a social worker from Philadelphia. He discussed in detail Toynbee’s book and stated that it contained a theory for bringing dead molecules back to life. He stated that this same theory was disguised in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. He also stated that he had started a Jupiter colonization organization called the Minority Association.

In 2003, Kansas City Star editor Doug Worgul attempted to contact James Morasco. He located his number in a Philadelphia telephone book, but was told by his wife that James had died in March of that year. He was 88 at the time. Worgul doubted that James was the tile maker since James would have been in his 70’s when most of the tiles were laid. In a 2011 documentary, documentarian Justin Duerr attributed the tiles to a Severino Verna who he believed used the name James Morasco as an alias. Duerr’s theory was that Verna was placing the tiles through a hole in the bottom of his car while broadcasting his theories over a short-wave broadcast.

Early works of science fiction like Clarke and Bradbury usually contain some ray of hope. Both writers suggest that when society looks to creating a future rich in science and technology, they come together with the unifying goal of creating a better tomorrow. A similar theme can be seen in Gene Rodenberry’s STAR TREK series where a Unified Federation forms around advancements in technology and a drive towards exploration. Since 2003, new tiles have been found all over Philadelphia. Although there are subtle differences in their wording, it is still believed that they are the work of the same person. Perhaps it is just the work of one creative mind. Or maybe there’s some other message of hope from the future or even a warning.