miles of tiles

by Art Chantry:

i spent the last week hanging out in one of my favorite cities in the US – Philadelphia. i love that place. it has duchamp, the mutter museum, harry’s occult store, everything NYC has (without all the arrogance) – and THE BEST JUNK FOOD ON EARTH. i also saw my very first “toynbee tile”!!!! it was a swell visit.

there was a documentary film released in 2011 called “Resurrect Dead: the Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.” it made the usual doc circuit and won some awards and then showed up on ‘pay per view’ , where i finally saw it. the movie was a peculiar documentary/detective movie/personal autobiographical story of the film maker himself, who spent many many years trying to unravel the origins of these mystery tiles. the final film went together after he’d pretty much devoted his entire obsessive life to the problem and finally had to do something with his efforts. so, the film is really strange from several perspectives – the tiles themselves not the least of it. i highly rcommend this documentary film if you can find it. it’s downright creepy.

these tiles started to get noticed in the early 1980′s. i photogrpahed this example in phialdelphia last week (the suspected city where the ‘artist’ lives, since the bulk of them are there). they almost always say something to the effect of this tile: “toynbee idea/in movie 2001/resurrect dead/on planet jupiter.” there are hundreds and hundeds of these tiles stuck into the asphalt roadbed of cities – usually on the east coast, centered asound philadelphia. they’ve also begun to show up on the roads in other cities as far east (originally) as kansas city (and more recently – 2007 vintage – on the west coast). they’ve even shown up in certain areas of south america. what do they mean?

though, many of the tiles say all sorts of other odd things (there have even been discovered large sheets with expansive diatribes on them), nobody really knows what they mean. the references to historian arnold toynbee, to stanley kubirck’s classic ’2001- a space odyssey”, and resurrecting the dead on planet jupiter (a sort of infamous crackpot “one world” zombie conspiracy) seem to have no real story to tell. the film i mentioned goes into great depth to try to explain the meaning – but ultimately fails.

they’ve been traced to several oddball crackpot hermit-like weirdoes – often with false names. the filmakers and others have traced several possible culprits (artists?). the problem is intensified by copycats, many of whom have seemingly (badly) replicated their own ‘toynbee tiles’ in cities everywhere. i personally saw peace signs and little alien bugs also stuck all over the sidestreets of philadelphia in a similar fashion. the problem is that that once the idea was out and slowly noticed, all the fake boho “arteests” thought it would be cool to do it too. the result is mayhem and lost origins. perfect.

however, the thing i found so wonderful about these things is the inventive TECHNOLOGY! some lone wolf weirdo actually figgered out a really clever and effective way to send out a sort of message/grafitti in a totally new and almost permanent anonymous way. these things are constantly seen by millions of folks and nobody knows the message or even who screamed it at them. it’s really brilliant.

the methodology is even still a bit of a mystery as well. these little plaques (they are usually about the size of a license plate) are literally cut out of old linoleum pieces and then ‘glued’ to the asphalt (exactly how is still in dispute). as the cars drive over them and the sun softens and bakes the street, they sink into the blacktop and become permanent. nobody has ever been spotted actually doing this process, either. so, how does it get done?

one favorie theory i’ve read is that the linoleum tile is cut out, then slopped with asphalt glue of some sort, them simply wrapped into a piece of tar paper. the application is done by dropping the tile through a HOLE CUT IN THE FLOOR of an old beater car (supposedly seen and of many differing descriptions). as time

tires travel over the tarpaper-wrapped tile, the top layer is worn off and the message appears. whether this is the real tchnique or not is still unknown. but, however, it’s done, it’s magical.

my point here is that however these things are made and applied, it’s CHEAP and EASY and PERMANENT and totally ANONYMOUS! that’s amazing, isn’t it? actually, it’s brilliant!

it sort of reminds me of an old punk technique i saw that was used back in the late 70′s/early 80′s in seattle. it was a stencil trick. to advertise your show, you’d take a paper shopping bag (preferably with those little handles on them) and cut our of the bottom of the bag all the words you wanted to say – band/where/date/time, etc. then you simply stash a can of spray paint in the bag and walk around town. you occasionally stop, reach into the bag, rummage around and spray through the stencil cut out of the bottom and VOILA! info/poster sprayed/stenciled permanently onto the sidewalk! you can do it in a crowd in full daylight and get away with it cleanly! i always thought that idea was brilliant (and very very annoying).

ideas like this led to an even more interesting new business – one that is enriching small businessmen all over the place. you cut information out of a rubber blanket – as if it were a big rubber stencil. you lay the rubber stencil on a DIRTY sidewalk and then powerwash with water right through the stenciled image. the result is an advert is applied TO the sidewalk (“eat at joe’s”) – RIGHT THROUGH THE DIRT. basically, you have cleaned away part of the filth and left a nice clean ADVERTISEMENT. i’ve seen this technnique done in many cities and it must be a great quick buck for an enterpirising business geek – at least until all the sidewalks in town get clean. maybe then, they apply fresh grime? dunno.

necessity is the mother of invention.

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