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.
One of the most difficult and important things established during our research was an accurate timeline. I’ll spare you the years of dead ends and bizarre coincidences that led us down many a winding and fruitless path, and just give you what we know:
1979: According to Minority Association documents, between January and June 1979 The Toynbee Tiler (TTT) discovered a passage in Arnold Toynbee’s autobiography: Experiences. In part it reads:
However, the dust of which a human body is composed, quantitatively trivial though it is, is an integral part of the inconceivably vast physical universe; and, when, after death, the body dissolves into its physical elements, these elements themselves are not annihilated. Death has destroyed the organism, that, for a brief time, had succeeded in maintaining itself as a puny counter-universe; but the physical materials of which the dissolved human body was composed at the moment of death have not been destroyed through ceasing to be incorporated temporarily in an organic physical structure. They are continuing to exist as parts of the physical universe, though this no longer in an organic form…
You can read the full passage here.
TTT combined the ideas in Experiences and connected them to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. He then set to work forming the Minority Association, a group dedicated to the colonization of Jupiter. We have no proof that the organization was ever larger than its founding member.
According to the documents, TTT introduced his idea with the public in February 1980 on a call-in to Larry King. In 1980, King was best known as the host of a nationally syndicated late night radio show. At 3 a.m. he opened his lines to the public for what he dubbed Open Phone America. We’ve learned since that TTT made more than 1 call to the show and may have been something of a regular.
George Washington University holds the Larry King radio archives, but extensive searches never turned up the February 1980 tape. Even without it, we have an approximation of a transcript in David Mamet’s one act play, 4 a.m. In the 1985 play, Mamet presents a conversation between a caller and a radio host based on Larry King. The caller asks for support for his idea to raise the dead on Jupiter through ideas presented in the movie 2001 and the writings of Arnold Toynbee.
In 2006 Mamet commented to NPR that he believes the tiles are a homage to his play. I don’t doubt that he believes this, but evidence strongly suggests that he based his play on an actual call between the TTT and Larry King.
Prior to the publication of Mamet’s 4 a.m. TTT approached journalists and intellectuals trying to promote his idea. In March 1983, a man speaking as James Morasco called Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Clark de Leon, who wrote a 11 sentence piece for the paper. This article was the extent of the Minority Association’s success in mainstream media. (Read the full article)
On a more subversive track, TTT also purchased a shortwave transmitter to help him spread his message. We spoke to a go-between in the shortwave community who participated in a sale of a Viking II transmitter between a shortwave pirate and a man in South Philadelphia in the early 1980’s. The buyer specifically wanted the mobile unit to “jam channel 2” in New York with a “religious message.” We know that TTT used a Viking II to jam VHF broadcast signals in Philadelphia. Our contact didn’t get out of the car for the face to face transaction, and there’s no direct evidence of a connection, but it’s a compelling anecdote.
By the mid 1980’s wheatpaste messages were plastered throughout center city Philadelphia advertising the ideas of the Minority Association and shortwave radio broadcasts. We never found photos of the wheatpastes, but their message was reproduced in a shortwave zine, ACE (Association of Clandestine Enthusiasts) in February 1984. A short article accompanied the transcript:
The above public notice has recently began to appear in the center city of Philadelphia, Pa. These “stickers” have showed up almost everywhere! On USA Today boxes, telephone poles, train & bus stations, even on Communist Workers Party newspaper boxes… (Read the full article)
The first reports of tiles that we consider to be credible date to the mid-1980’s. Early tiles were about the size of a license plate, plain white and had no border or mosaic elements. To see different styles of tiles and how they changed over time, visit the WHAT section of this site.
Based on style, content and the memory of a man who encountered the tiles as a child in Santiago Chile, this is also when the South American tiles appeared. We have absolutely no idea why he chose these 3 countries. The only theory I have is this passage from Experiences (p. 273) , Arnold Toynbee’s autobiography and the same book that inspired the idea behind the tiles:
In 1909, the year in which I made my first journey beyond the bounds of Britain, the only means of conveyance from this island to any other country was by ship; in 1966 I traveled by aeroplane from London to Rio de Janiero, and back from Santiago de Chile to London soaring over the Andes instead of climbing up and down them by train…
This theory is a stretch, but worth mentioning (just barely).
In this era, tiles in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and Pittsburgh, PA included the address of a house in South Philadelphia as a side-text to their primary message. Along with style and memory, this is a strong indicator that the South America tiles were among the earliest. By the 1990’s the messages took a much more paranoid turn and TTT ceased all direct communication to the media about his idea. By the 1990’s it’s extremely unlikely that would have put his address on a tile.
1990 – 1999
The 1990’s were the heyday of the Toynbee Tiles.
TTT spent the first half of the 1980’s trying and mostly unsuccessfully to promote his idea through mainstream media, direct messages and shortwave radio broadcasts. We know that by the late 1980’s he’d begun experimenting with crude messages embedded in busy city intersections from Boston to Washington, DC.
In the 1990’s a few big things happened:
- The tiles became increasingly complex in style and artistry.
- They became increasingly paranoid with a growing hostility towards the media
- The internet was born and people in cities around the world learned just how widespread these messages were, and that no one knew who made them or where they came from.
- Where the media ignored the TTT, the tiles began receiving widespread press attention.
2000 – 2009
The early 2000’s brought huge, sweeping changes to the tiles. For years, we assumed that the hundreds that appeared in Philadelphia between 2002 and 2006 were the work of a copycat. As evidence mounts, that theory has been abandoned. With that said, copycats – some of them very convincing – have been active for years.
Reports of large or segmented tiles glued on highways and at exit ramps began to appear in 2001. From their location, it’s pretty much guaranteed that these were distributed by car. Highway tiles continue to pop up to this day. With the exception of a single tile in Connecticut, these tiles appeared only in Philadelphia and its metro area.
From 2004 – 2006 hundreds of index card size or smaller tiles appeared throughout Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore. Most of these appeared to be put down by someone on a bike, or on foot. Many of them were clustered around major public transit hubs. A handful of larger, highway style tiles appeared in this era, so TTT probably had occasional access to a car.
In 2007 about a dozen tiles made close to the original style appeared in center city Philadelphia. These tiles were clearly distributed by car.
2008 – 2010: Hundreds of tiles of every style, and a few new styles were glued in nearly every corner of Philadelphia. A large number of tiles also appear in South Jersey between the Philadelphia suburbs and the Jersey shore. Around this time, a shortwave station of unknown origin started to broadcast under the name Toynbee Radio. It’s not out of question that the TTT is somehow affiliated with this station, though QSL’s showing photographs of tiles in production, or tiles sent directly to listeners by mail, are known copycats. The operator of Toynbee Radio has denied being TTT, but has never definitively ruled out a connection to him.
2010 & BEYOND
The movie Resurrect Dead was accepted into the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and premiered there in January of that year. The film was seen in festivals and theaters internationally and was distributed on cable, streaming and DVD.
The past few years have marked another dramatic shift in the life of the Toynbee Tile saga. From 2013 – 2015 dozens of tiles in a new, but consistent style appeared in Baltimore, Wilmington, on I-95, South Jersey and New York City. Interestingly, some of the tiles in the Atlantic City area don’t display the Toynbee message, but instead attack a man named Mason Meltzer. Meltzer reportedly has a tangential connection to TTT, though he’s never actually met him.