When I was in the 8th grade, I ran a pretty good scheme at my school. In the afternoons, I’d stop by my local bodega/40 shop and load up on atomic fireball candies for 5 cents a piece. The next day, I’d sell them to my classmates for a dime each, or 3 for a quarter. By Friday afternoon, I had enough spare change for an hour of gaming at one of the arcades on Chestnut Street in center city Philadelphia. It was 1993, and I walked across a few tiles on my way to the arcade. That’s where I first noticed them.

What caught my eye and confounded me most was: how did they get there? The message suggested they were clandestinely installed, but how? Like a lot of other people, I imagined heavy machinery, blowtorches and a small work crew. Were they metal? Vinyl? How?

As I read more about the tiles and learned the that they’d appeared at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, a block from the White House, Times Square and dozens of other busy, sensitive locations, the mystery deepened.

In 2000, Justin Duerr found a freshly glued tile at 13th and Arch Streets in center city Philadelphia, and finally figured out how it was all done. He discovered that the tile was in the center of a layered package of tar paper and held together by glue. The bundle was then adhered to the street with a kind of road tar. The tile itself was linoleum, a soft and pliable material. True linoleum has far more give than your average vinyl floor tile, and is less prone to shattering under the extreme conditions of a city street.

Another source of information was a large tile at Smithfield and 7th in Pittsburgh, PA. One of its side-text messages included instructions on how to make and glue tiles. Ironically, the tile never set properly, leaving large portions of the message illegible. We can make out the words “summer sun melts” along with “linoleum” and “I use asphalt crack filler.” We know that tiles typically go down in the hottest months, when the asphalt is at its softest. This helps tiles properly adhere to the street.

From this information, we know that the ideal tile mosaic is made from a thin, flexible linoleum tile (although some tiles are made with different materials). The central message is carved out with a hot razor. Borders, mosaics, side text pieces and other artistic elements are included and the whole package is wrapped in a black, tar paper package. That package is then dropped on the street in the dark of night. At that point it looks like this:

15th and Chestnut, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik, 2007.
15th and Chestnut, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik, 2007.
Detail of 15th and Chestnut, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik, 2007.
Detail of 15th and Chestnut, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Steve Weinik, 2007.

As cars drive over the tile, the package is driven into the street. Over time, the top layers of tar paper are worn away. By the time the tile is revealed, it’s thoroughly embedded into the street. No road crews or blowtorches. Once carved and prepped, tiles can be installed in seconds.

But how did the Toynbee Tiler (TTT) get away with gluing over 600 tiles in more than 50 cities worldwide without ever getting caught? If you read this site front to back, you’ll remember that I mentioned that TTT had experience converting Fiat 128 sedans into pickup trucks. We don’t know what kind of car TTT used to distribute tiles, but we do know that he’d used his skills to remove the floorboard. So now take the scenario above and imagine this:

It’s 4 A.M. and a car pulls up to a red light. The light turns green and the car drives off. While it was stopped you probably didn’t notice the driver dropping a black rectangular package through the open floorboard of his car, or notice the low, flat, black mound of tar paper appear on the black asphalt of the street.

And that’s it. Simple and brilliant.

* To make your own tiles, you can refer to these instructions in Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook, a Moveable Feast By CrimeInc Worker’s Collective.

New York Times Critic’s Pick
Roger Ebert: #5 pick, best documentary 2011

Directing Award, Documentary: 2011 Sundance Film Festival

Strangeness is afoot. Most people don’t notice the hundreds of cryptic tiled messages about resurrecting the dead that have been appearing in city streets over the past three decades. But Justin Duerr does. For years, finding an answer to this long-standing urban mystery has been his obsession. He has been collecting clues that the tiler has embedded in the streets of major cities across the U.S. and South America. But as Justin starts piecing together key events of the past he finds a story that is more surreal than he imagined, and one that hits disturbingly close to home.