Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Toynbee Tiles and House of Hades



The most recent record on the map was from 2006, just over a decade behind the present. I scribbled down the locations in my notebook, determined to go looking the next day. I spent nearly my entire lunch break wandering and coming up short until I spotted one near a crosswalk. Maybe the map had been off a bit, I wasn't expecting to find anything here. I waited for traffic to subside, jogged out to the middle of the road and knelt down while an idling cab driver eyed me suspiciously.


Staring down at the asphalt, I had been expecting to read these cryptic words:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

But, what I found said:

HOUSE OF HADES+
COLOSSUS OF ROADS
GOTHAM EXILE IN
SURREALVILLE 2011

I was taken aback at the unexpected message and didn't have too long to think about it before traffic resumed and I ran back to the curb. After work that day, I found another and then one more the following day thanks to 5chw4r7z. With additional help from comments on QC/D’s Facebook and Twitter, several people offered insight and clues as to what these things were and where to find them locally. What I assumed was initially just eclectic, guerrilla street art is actually much, much more. The subject never came to my attention until recently, but as soon as I first read about “Toynbee Tiles,” I was hooked, drawn in, and had to know more.

- A standard Toynbee Tile. Image via Wikipedia.

The tiles themselves are defined as "messages of unknown origin found embedded in asphalt streets." Reports of them go back to the early 1980s and they’ve been primarily found in major cities along the East Coast and in the Midwest, with the strongest concentration located in Philadelphia. The vast majority feature a central message, although there’s the occasional variation:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

In some cases, the tiles will features side notes which make reference to politics, media, conspiracy, or other subjects. I’m certainly not the first to take notice of the tiles, attempt to document them, or write an article about them. Perhaps the people who have done that best are Justin Duerr, Steve Weinik, and Colin Smith, the producers and key figures of the 2011 documentary “Resurrect Dead.” The best way to get an understanding of the tiles is to watch and discuss this film. Fair warning if you haven’t seen it: what I’ve written here will delve into the film's story, but I won’t go into all the details of a movie that’s well worth your time.

The film isn’t solely about the tiles and the mystique surrounding them, but also about the filmmakers and their journey as well. Cincinnati is briefly featured along with a reference to a 2001 story by City Beat. Hundreds of these tiles have been found and documented with the Queen City once sporting at least three in its streets.

- A Toynbee Tile as seen in Cincinnati in 2009 at the corner of 6th and Walnut Streets. Image via Denny Gibson.

Ultimately, the film isn’t definitively conclusive in regards to the meaning or who the original creator is, but it does present an argument for what may be the best theory:

“Toynbee” appears to be a reference to Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian who believed civilization must respond to challenges in order to prosper. “2001” is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which depicts a manned space mission to Jupiter (Kubrick’s name does occasionally appear in some tiles). Throughout the course of the documentary, the filmmakers are able to find evidence that links them to a reclusive citizen of Philadelphia. They come to find several “prototypes” in the streets near his home. They also uncover accounts that he may have once been the person behind a series of short wave radio broadcasts which espoused ideas similar to those found in the tiles. In fact, they find his Philadelphia address directly referenced in a tile that existed in Chile. There’s also evidence that indicates this figure may have had help from a neighbor who worked for Conrail, a company whose freight tracks served all of the cities where tiles appeared. There's even a connection between the company and a shipment to South America which may have aided the appearance of tiles there.

One of the film’s key figures, Justin Duerr, had been documenting the tiles since the early days of the internet, long before the documentary came about. At one point, he came across what’s been dubbed “The Manifesto Tile.” This specific tile goes into far more detail about what appears to be a conspiracy in the media and various levels of government to silence the tiler’s message and ideas. Through more research, they’re able to piece together what exactly that central idea may be.

In a 1983 article that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer entitled “Theories: Wanna Run That One By Me Again?,” journalist Clark DeLeon recounts a conversation with a man named James Morasco who believes that “the planet Jupiter would be colonized by bringing all the people on Earth who had ever died back to life and then changing Jupiter’s atmosphere to allow them to live.” DeLeon goes on to recount that Morasco was inspired by the ideas of Toynbee and Kubrick and that while the idea is scientifically impossible, his subject sincerely believe’s in its potential. Ultimately, as the article’s title implies, DeLeon is not only skeptical, but dismissive. Who could blame him? What we know of modern science proves that such a feat is quite literally impossible. However, to Morasco, perhaps this was the kind of challenge our society needed to tackle, the kind of occasion that Toynbee’s writings implored humanity to rise to. Eventually, it’s discovered that the alias of James Morasco is likely a pseudonym used by the reclusive Philadelphia citizen mentioned earlier. It’s speculated and somewhat affirmed that he was deeply passionate in this idea and after being dismissed or shrugged off so many times, he took to a guerrilla art campaign to spread his message. Perhaps his perceived lack of acceptance by mainstream society is what leads to the often aggressive language and allusions to a vast coverup? The manifesto tile speaks more closely to this with phrases such as:

“When back home Inquirer [presumed to be the Philadelphia Inquirer] got union goons from their own employees union to send down a ‘sports journalist’ who, with baseball bat bashed in lights and windows of neighborhood as men outside my house. They are stationed there still. Waiting for me.”

From a practical standpoint, yes, the overall idea of bringing everyone who has died back to life on a planet with no real surface is “far fetched,” “out there,” and comes off as what one might describe as “crazy.” But, in my opinion, there’s a different understanding that can come from from all of this, even if it’s not the literal and intended message of the “Toynbee Idea.”

It varies from person to person and maybe there’s some who can say outright they’ve never felt this way, but odds are everyone has experienced what it can be like to be misunderstood, to feel your voice isn’t heard, to feel you’re not listened to. Whether you believe the dead can be resurrected in the far reaches of our solar system or struggle coming to terms with your own existence, there’s a sense of humanity that comes from this particular theory about the tiles. Maybe the tiler felt his ideas could be a physical form of afterlife, a human created version of the “heaven” alluded to in so many religions. Maybe this was his way to cheat death, his way of helping humanity? Maybe in his mind, this breakthrough, idealistic proposal and hope for the future has been dismissed or intentionally covered up by the powers that be for their own sinister gain?

Whether you believe in bringing science fiction to reality or not, I think many people can sympathize with the struggle of wanting to be heard.

- A July 2017 image of the  same section of road as seen in the previous photo from Denny Gibson. The original Toynbee Tile may have been removed or covered up beneath fresh asphalt and paint.

We’ll likely never know the true and full intention behind the tiles, but maybe what already has been said by the filmmakers is good enough. They were never able to speak to the reclusive man whom they believed to be the tiler. And they’ve stopped trying. One of the film’s central figures, Justin Duerr, speaks to this with a quote that sums up the story and tells of his encounter with a man who he believes is the tiler.

“For years and years I wanted to talk to this person and for years and years I wanted to solve the mystery. But the thing was, that when I ran into him on the bus, I didn’t want to do it. You know, it’s not that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I decided not to bring myself to do it, because I felt like it was not the right thing to do. You can’t force somebody to open up to you. You can’t force somebody to decide that they’re gonna share things with you. I need to know when to let go. I had a moment of emotional and intellectual clarity about where I stood with the story. 
Let them go in peace on their way and I would go in peace on my way and that would be it.”

Tiles still appear in the streets these days. They take a unique process to create, one that can be learned from watching several online “how-to” videos. A combination of linoleum, asphalt sealer, and tar paper can allow the tile to be physically pressed or baked into the asphalt and become part of the surface. The range of newly appearing tiles has expanded beyond the original Midwest/East Coast/Brazil area, but many of the newer ones are clearly copycats. Which is probably quite alright with the original creator, he often featured side messages encouraging passersby to create their own. At the same time, the filmmakers feel confident that several of the ones popping up in recent years are the work of the original tiler.

You won’t find any in Cincinnati though, at least not any that champion the original “Jupiter” message. Once sporting three, all have disappeared: two were in the path of new streetcar tracks, another at the heart of a well traveled block. There are other tiles though.

- July 2017 photograph of a "House of Hades" tile in downtown Cincinnati.

“House of Hades” tiles initially began appearing in Buffalo and have since found their way to many of the same locales as the original Toynbee Tiles, often in close proximity. While the medium and technique may be the same, the message differs. Cincinnati once had at least five tiles from HOH, but is now down to three as of this writing. Like the Toynbee ones before, these linoleum mosaics are often right out in the open, but easily overlooked. Here, the remaining three are all located near crosswalks with heavy pedestrian traffic. However, unless you're looking down, you're likely to simply walk right over them. Even if you do come across one, you'll need more time than your average traffic light cycle to read the message. Interestingly, all of the local HOH tiles are situated in a manner that appears inverted, requiring any passersby to read them upside down or directly face the flow of traffic.

- A House of Hades tile seen in a Cincinnati crosswalk on 6th St. between Main and Walnut.

These newer tiles, with their own theme and visual design, seem to now appear far more regularly than that of the Toynbee variety. Meanwhile, their message and origins haven’t received the same amount of investigative scrutiny and attention as their assumed inspirations. The aforementioned Justin Deurr says he's met the person behind House of Hades, stating that he wasn't a “copycat,” rather that it was his “own thing using the same technique.” Unlike the Toynbee tiles, the text of the Hades tiles will often change, but most seem to discuss a conflict with institutional media.

The Cincinnati tiles have the following messages:


No. 1:


Main text:
“HOUSE OF HADES
PLAGUE AND FAMINE
TO AMERICAN MEDIA
IN SOCIETY ‘2011”

Other text:
“BUFFALO NEWS, NY POST, PGHPOSTGAZETTE, PHILAINQUIRER- (illegible) SHITOCRATSADISTS.”

“IMPLEMENTING HABITS OF SUBVERSION TO HARVEST YOU ALL TO PRISON.”


No. 2:


Main text:
"HOUSE OF HADES+
COLOSSUS OF ROADS
BRAKEMAN BRUSH IN
SURREALVILLE ‘2011"

Other text:
“GOTHAM EXILE”

“LT. LC SLUCID”


No. 3:


Main text:
“HOUSE OF HADES+
COLOSSUS OF ROADS
GOTHAM EXILE IN
SURREALVILLE ‘2011"

Other text:
“GO DEVIL BRUSH HOGS”


No. 4:
A fourth Hades tile (now gone, but documented by 5chw4r7z in 2016) read:

Main text:
“HOUSE OF HADES
WHO WILL PAY FOR
ALL THEY HAVE DONE
IN SOCIETY ‘2011

Other text:
“ONE MAN VS MEDIA’S”

“PUTRID PATRICIANS”


No. 5:


- A 5th Hades tile once seen near 6th and Main Streets was saved from road construction by the Contemporary Arts Center in 2015. Image via: Cincy CAC

A fifth Hades tile was saved from road construction by the Contemporary Arts Center. This one is visually distinct from the others in that it features a representation of someone's legs wrapped around the text.

Main text:
“HOUSE OF HADES
ONE MAN VERSUS
AMERICAN MEDIA
IN SOCIETY ‘2011

Other text:
"THIS IS A GAME YOU WILL LOSE"


- A House of Hades tile can be seen in context just below the front of the white vehicle at the intersection of 5th and Main Streets.

The Hades tiles will often have their text stylized in a way mimicking the original Toynbee tiles. However, HOH’s work often deviates, featuring visual imagery and graphics. The Cincinnati tiles seen here echo a message similar to other HOH examples found throughout the country. Oftentimes, they’re aimed at accusing the media of having a destructive agenda or warning the reader that the media and its “iron fist” will be destroyed. In some cases, the text will read that the tiles are made “from the ground bones of dead journalists.” Occasionally, they’ll make reference to “the resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society.”

- A House of Hades tile seen near the intersection of 7th and Vine Streets in Cincinnati.

The HOH tiles began getting the attention of the filmmakers right around 2011. When the documentary premiered at Philadelphia’s IFC Theatre, two fresh Hades tiles were found out front. Photographer Steve Weinik from the film maintains an ongoing website about the whole tile subject about and has noted several HOH tiles popping up in recent years. In terms of delving deeper into this newer mystery, some of the Cincinnati tiles offered clues: the simplistic graphic of a cowboy and the words “Colossus of Roads.”

- Detail of a moniker which accompanies one of the Cincinnati House of Hades tiles.

A commenter on QC/D’s Facebook page (thanks, Elizabeth B.) noted that the cowboy graphic at the right side of one tile is known as “Colossus of Roads,” the same name that appears in the text of several of the photographed tiles in this post. The moniker has long appeared on rail cars and is placed by renown folk artist buZ blurr. A third generation veteran of the freight rail industry, buZ’s moniker is stylistically designed as a profile of another famous moniker, that of the elusive Bozo Texino. Both monikers were featured in Bill Daniel’s 2005 film about the graffiti left on railroad boxcars by hobos and rail workers. Two of the local HOH tiles also features the word “Surrealville,” which I’ve been told is another name for “The Principality of buZ” (a.k.a. blurr’s workshop). The collaboration between Hades and buZ is interesting. While one marks railcars, the other marks territory in the path of pedestrian and automobile transportation. When researching, I wasn’t able to gain much further insight into House of Hades, just that buZ has been known to say that “the medium is the message.” The anti-media, anti-establishment dialogue of HOH seems reminiscent of the Dada movement in the early 20th century and the use of tiles placed throughout several locations evokes the culture of moniker art. Both the tiles and monikers are often right in our midst, but are easily overlooked when passing by. The art and message are therefore available to those willing to look further, willing to listen to someone that wants to be heard. As Justin Duerr explained in his recounting of a meeting with HOH, these tiles are “their own thing” and he’s completely right. While the streets of Cincinnati and many other cities have lost their original Toynbee tiles, House of Hades appears to still be going strong, a new chapter linking several stories that touch upon what photographer and artist Bill Daniel described as “various social margins.”

- A House of Hades tile as seen in Cincinnati, July 2017.

Perhaps House of Hades is truly the “resurrection of Toynbee’s idea” after all?

__________

Special thanks to 5chw4r7z, Denny Gibson, buZ blurr, the Contemporary Arts Center, and all the folks on Reddit/Facebook/Twitter who helped with this story.

4 comments:

  1. Awesome post Ronny, I wavered back and forth for a week over chiseling up the one on Walnut that the streetcar destroyed, but I never did. I wish I wasn't so chickenshit.

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    1. Bob, thanks so much for your help with this post and for documenting some of these before they were gone! Are you referring to the one that was near Ruby's on 7th? Next time we see one potentially going away, let's go grab it!

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  2. This is an excellent piece, very thorough and well researched with a firm grasp on very many aspects of the mystery and the film. The research on the Cincinnati tile history is interesting and helpful, too. Nicely done, thanks for this! -Colin from Resurrect Dead

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    1. Thanks so much, Colin! That means a lot, love your work.

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