SCOTT SIMON, host:
As an urban mystery, the Toynbee tiles have fascinated fans of street art for more than 25 years. The tiles are about the size of license plates and are embedded in the streets of various cities - New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, even far as Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose set out to solve the mystery of the tiles in the city where it seems to have started.
JOEL ROSE: The tile is faded but still legible. It says Toynbee idea in Kubrick's 2001 resurrect dead on planet Jupiter.
Mr. JUSTIN DUERR (Artist): It's pretty damaged. I mean, it's probably been there about 20 years.
ROSE: Artist Justin Duerr is working on a documentary film about the tiles. He's hunched over one of the oldest known examples in a crosswalk on South Street.
Mr. DUERR: This is like a very classic example of the old style with the red, white and blue lettering and, you know, kind of the size they were and stuff. It's probably about a foot long or a foot and a half long by maybe like six or seven inches high, you know.
ROSE: So what exactly is the tile trying to say?
Mr. DUERR: Resurrecting the dead could potentially mean resurrecting a dead civilization or a dead idea or concept or something; you know, because that's something Toynbee talks about.
ROSE: Duerr says Toynbee is probably the late British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. And Kubrick is definitely Stanley Kubrick, who directed 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Mr. DUERR: The end of 2001, it's pretty trippy and it's pretty open-ended, but some type of resurrection takes place in that, but you get the idea, or I always got the idea, that it probably wasn't a completely physical resurrection. It was some kind of spiritual rebirth or something that was happening.
ROSE: There are hundreds of these so-called Toynbee tiles and all of them bear some version of the same cryptic message. They seem to be made of linoleum. Presumably they're stuck to the street in the middle of the night, although no one has ever seen the tiler or tilers in action. Toynbee tiles first appeared in the early 1980's around the same time playwright David Mamet published Four AM. It's a one act play about a radio host and a strange caller who wants to talk about his plan to, yes, resurrect the dead on Jupiter. Mamet says he wrote the play at a time when he was staying up very late.
Mr. DAVID MAMET (Playwright): The play is an homage to Larry King, the days when I used to listen to him on the radio in the middle of the night.
ROSE: Back then King hosted an overnight radio show. But Mamet insists the play is not based on a real caller.
Mr. MAMET: People used to ask me where I get my ideas, and I would always say I think of them. There was no call on the radio. I made it up.
ROSE: But someone did make a phone call about resurrecting the dead on Jupiter to Clark DeLeon. It was 1983 and DeLeon was writing a daily column for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Mr. CLARK DELEON (The Philadelphia Inquirer): So one day I get this phone call from a guy, and he identified himself as a city social worker. He had this idea about people being resurrected from the planet Jupiter, something about the molecules, and it was just so wacky and, you know, kind of out there, and I believe my headline on it was: You want to run that by me again?
ROSE: The caller identified himself as James Morasco. There was a Philadelphia social worker by that name. He died several years ago, and his widow insists he did not have anything to do with the tiles. In some cases the Toynbee tiles branch out beyond their core message about Jupiter. A few carry instructions such as you must make and glue tiles; and you as media is.
Clark DeLeon says the tiler seems to have a special vendetta against John S. Knight, founder of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain that used to own the Inquirer. A few tiles refer to Knight as a quote, "hellion Jew," and even a Soviet spy.
Mr. DELEON: It's rife with paranoia, everything that these tiles say. And yet they're so bizarre. They catch your eye and once you've seen them, you know, you start noticing them everywhere.
ROSE: There aren't many other clues about the Toynbee tiles. A few pointed to an address in south Philadelphia, but that turned out to be a dead end. By the late 1990's many of the older tiles had been paved over. Then about four years ago, Justin Duerr started seeing new ones.
Mr. DUERR: We're on the corner of Thirteenth and Chestnut and we're looking at a tile. It's one of the - one of the bigger of the new style of the tiles.
ROSE: Duerr and other experts think the new tiles are the work of a copycat. He says there are slight but telling differences. For example, instead of saying resurrect dead, the new tiles say raise dead. Whoever it is, the current tiler has clearly been busy. Dozens of new tiles have appeared in and around Philadelphia, a few just in the last month. They've even been spotted in the breakdown lane of a busy interstate.
Mr. DUERR: You've got to respect them for the amount of effort they put into it. I mean it's like the tiles are a little smaller, but they've actually put down more tiles in Philly than the original tiler did, you know, so...
ROSE: It's not you?
Mr. DUERR: I promise it's not me, yeah.
ROSE: At this point, Duerr thinks he does have a pretty good guess about who the original tiler was but, he's not telling.
Mr. DUERR: It's a form of art, but it's not put down what the idea that this person is thinking they're going to be in an art gallery, and it's not something that's put down with the idea that this person's going to try to make money off of it. It's something that's very sincere in it's - in what it's trying to convey.
ROSE: Whatever that is. For NPR News I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
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SIMON: And you'll find photos and background on the Toynbee tiles at our Web site npr.org.