Thursday, June 14, 2018

Toynbee/House of Hades Tiles: An Update


Street art found in the literal streets. Cincinnati has lost several of these over the years. Out of three remaining, one seemed marked for death, but it's not totally lost.



- The subject of this article seen intact in July 2017.


One of my favorite QC/D stories of all time was from last year. The one about the “Toynbee/House of Hades Tiles,” cryptic street art found embedded in the thoroughfares of Downtown Cincinnati and many other major cities. There's a mythos surrounding these things, but no firm or totally clear explanation as to their origin or meaning. There’s a couple different ways to create them (although the methods used by the “tilers” aren’t exactly known, only assumed), most of which require a process that slowly reveals the tile over time.  Once it shows up to the naked eye, it’s firmly there, sealed and merged with the asphalt, one with the streets we walk, drive, and bike over. It’s not really a permanent installation, though. While the tiles can usually withstand the seasons and the vehicles passing over them, roadwork is often the cause of their demise. Changes to the street grid and the installation of streetcar tracks in recent years finished off what was left of the Queen City’s Toynbee examples, the original tiles that set off the mystery. Quite a few House of Hades works, newer styles of the cryptic tile medium, still remained. At the time of my article’s publication in August 2017 (which explored not just the local tiles, but what they could mean and who’s been investigating them), three tiles were around (it’s believed there were once five House of Hades tiles in Cincinnati).

- The 6th St. House of Hades tile in July 2017.


Just recently, I noticed some roadwork taking place along 6th Street, the clogged morning traffic screwing up my bike commute to work. I didn’t think much of it, though, until 5chw4r7z sent me a photo: one of the tiles with construction markings on it. Located on 6th St. in front of Igby’s, it seemed marked for destruction. I went to investigate on a lunch break one day.


A large square was spray painted across the asphalt and partially across the tile.


A few days later, cuts were made into the road and through the tile.


I was curious if the impending work would necessitate the whole tile’s removal or just a portion of the piece. Nearby, similar work was occurring that saw crews removing whole sections of the road to work on utilities below. Finally, the day came for the tile on 6th St.

I walked down to witness its possible death, snapping a few photographs from the nearby sidewalk.

“Hey, is everything ok,” asked a member of the crew working, curious as to why I was photographing the scene.

Over the sounds of earthmoving equipment, I did my best to explain the complicated story around the odd piece of linoleum embedded in the asphalt and featuring a peculiar and seemingly nonsensical message. The gentleman I spoke with was curious, though, and admitted that his work crew had done their best to try and preserve as much of tile as possible, happy to hear some sort of explanation behind the thing.

“Any chance I can have the piece you’re going to cut out?” I asked.

“Sure!” he enthusiastically replied.


Like a surgeon using a massive, four wheeled, jack hammer on a mechanical arm rather than a scalpel, the man behind the controls cut into the road with precision. Soon enough I had a piece of the tile in my hand, the attached roadway still hot from the sun and the cutting tools. I was incredibly grateful that they let me keep it.


Viewed in detail, you can see the strips of linoleum and a bit of how the tile is constructed. You can also see how the materials used and heat/activity of the road bonded the piece with the surface over time. As best as I’ve been able to discern, most of the House of Hades tiles showed up circa 2011.


The need to address some underground utilities necessitated the roadwork. It was my hope that maybe only a small section of this tile had to come out, that most of it would remain. The friendly crew stated that they did their best to keep most of it intact, but weren’t sure how much asphalt sealant might cover the tile once the utility work was done and road repaired.


A few weeks after snagging a piece of the tile, I noticed that the roadwork was coming to a close and that the whole tile was obscured. It was presumably still there, now covered under a glob a fresh asphalt or sealant. Maybe over time, I thought, the remaining tile would show up again one day. Maybe as the asphalt eroded it would reappear from beneath?


And sure enough, it did. In only a matter of a week, in fact. I stopped by again after being out of town for awhile. The tile is still there, still able to be seen aside from the piece I have. After a bit more rain and some time, it'll probably be even less obscured.I'm glad to see the tile survive as best as possible, kudos to the roadwork crew for doing what they could.

- The 6th St. tile as of June 12, 2018.


As for the piece I have, while I’d love to put it on a shelf and tell friends the cool story behind these things, the tile itself isn't my art or my work. While I’ve never been able to get into direct contact with House of Hades, “Colossus of Roads” is the moniker for iconic folk artist buZ blurr, who collaborated on these tiles. The surviving piece is headed back to him at “Surrealville,” his workshop mentioned in several of the tiles (after I made a few parting detail photographs of course).

All of the original types of this art (the "Toynbee variety") have been gone for some time. The later generation House of Hades tiles coexisted with them for awhile, but one was completely lost in 2016, another is in storage at the Contemporary Arts Center, and three still remain in the streets of Cincinnati (two fully intact, one partially removed). If you take a walk around 7th/Vine, 6th St. by Igby's, and 5th/Walnut while keeping an eye out, you’ll find them. Before you go looking, though, I recommend you read up on these things, then think about what they could mean and even what they have symbolized to people despite not having a full explanation. To me, these things represent giving time and trying understand the things we may be overlooking, whether that's an aspect of our own lives, other human beings, or simply a cryptic message in a city's street.

Maybe one day, new tiles will show up, making their presence known only once the piece has merged with the road and the artist is well on their way to someplace else.


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