There’s a mysterious message embedded in the asphalt of the crosswalk at W. 3rd and W. Prospect. You’ve probably walked over it a number of times and never even noticed, even though it’s about two feet wide, with colorful, cartoonish block lettering:
IN MOVIE ‘2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
The smaller messages in red are now illegible from years of weathering, but they once read:
IM ONLY ONE MAN WHEN
I CAUGHT A FATAL DISEASE
THEY GLOATED OVER ITS DEATH
THATS WHEN I BEGGED
THEM NOT TO DESTROY IT.
THANK YOU AND GOODBYE.
It’s been there for over 20 years. Weirder still, similar messages have been showing up in dozens of major cities since the early 1980s, and there are even several in South America. But the most bizarre part? Nobody knows who is responsible for them.
Which isn’t for lack of effort. Detectives, amateur sleuths, documentary teams, and the like have all taken a stab at it with no success. A remarkable documentary was released in 2011 called ‘Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles’ in which the filmmakers make a strong case that the individual responsible is a reclusive man living in Philadelphia, but they were ultimately unable to establish conclusive evidence. (Their argument and research is incredibly persuasive, though. Check out the documentary and decide for yourself!)
They’re referred to as ‘tiles’ because they’re made out of linoleum, with the messages carved and arranged by hand. According to various sources, they are covered in asphalt crack sealant and tar paper and laid on the street, where they’re impressed into the asphalt by traffic. The messages become visible once the tar paper wears away, long after it is deeply embedded into the road. At that point, they are nearly impossible to remove, ensuring the message’s longevity. As far as anyone knows, this process was developed independently by the tiler specifically for the purpose of publicizing the strange message.
And what does the message mean? As far as anyone can tell, ‘TOYNBEE IDEA’ most likely refers (there are other theories) to Arnold Toynbee, a 20th century British historian and philosopher, who suggests in an obscure passage that it may be scientifically possible to bring the dead back to life someday. ‘IN MOVIE ‘2001’ refers to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, with some of the tiles even specifically mentioning Kubrick. In the movie, a team of astronauts travel to Jupiter, where one of the astronauts dies and is reborn in the movie’s trippy ending. As for the part that says ‘RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER’? Most think it means exactly what it says: colonize Jupiter and bring the dead back to life there.
The tiles vary greatly in their design and layout, but the central ‘TOYNBEE IDEA’ message is nearly always there, with little variation. The cryptic side messages, however, differ greatly, and can be incredibly foreboding. Some offer warnings regarding ‘hellions and feds’ who ‘harvest you to prison’. Other ones describe massive conspiracies involving major media outlets, communists, the FBI, Soviets, Venezuelan hitmen, and myriad others. Occasionally, they call for the murder of journalists.
Sometimes, they simply urge the reader to make tiles of their own, and it seems that at least some people followed these instructions. Although some are occasionally credited to the original tiler, many of the recent messages are thought to be made by new artists or copycats. A shadowy artistic collective known as ‘House of Hades’, for example, has been using the process to make tiles of a similar style for a decade or so. One of theirs can be found on E. 14th and Prospect, having shown up sometime in the last few years. Very few of the original Toynbee tiles still exist, either having been eroded by traffic or destroyed during street repair. Cleveland is one of the few places where you can find one from what is thought to be the original tiler, and considering how long it’s been there, it’s actually in pretty good shape.
There were two others in Cleveland (W. 2nd and Rockwell, E. 12th and Euclid) that showed up around the same time as the one on W. 3rd, but they’ve been paved over. A brief conversation with a representative for Cleveland’s Division of Streets revealed that there are no plans to pave the road any time soon, so we still have time to look at it and wonder.
So what do we take away from this? There’s a very good chance that after enough time, the tiles will disappear forever without us ever knowing the whole story. Maybe the tiler will come forth and tell us just what he was up to and why, but given the paranoid nature of the messages, that seems unlikely. It’s obvious that whoever is responsible, be it one or many, is incredibly creative, innovative, and tenacious for having developed an entirely new artistic medium. And while the true meaning and motivation behind the message may never be known, it’s quite literally embedded into our culture and will not be forgotten for a long time. The tiles have a dedicated following, fascinated people trying to solve the mystery, keep the message alive, or both. For now, though, Cleveland is proudly home to one of the few remaining clues in one of the most captivating, elusive, and downright bizarre mysteries in recent history.