The Last Original Toynbee Tile in St. Louis – Corner of 8th and Market Streets, Downtown.
Photo by Michael Huntington – 2015.
by Michael Huntington
St. Louis has one true Toynbee Tile left. There used to be three, but one was paved over and the other stolen. The survivor sits on the corner of Eighth and Market Streets, next to the downtown City Art Park – which is appropriate since the Toynbee Tile is a form of urban street art.
Toynbee Tiles began appearing on the asphalts of city streets sometime in the early 1980s. There have been HUNDREDS of these linoleum graffiti pieces discovered in a few dozen US cities and a number of South American urban centers. The creation method is understood, but the artist/artists who made them is a mystery – but theories do abound. Many may be, indeed, the work of copycats – most of the true tiles by the originator(s) are believed to center around the Philadelphia area with sojourns to various cities in the Midwest. Countless tiles have been lost due to development, anti-graffiti measures, or art theft.
The unusual mosaic tiles, generally, bear strange reference to to Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was based on the classic work written by Arthur C. Clarke (Arnold Toynbee was a British historian-philosopher who had influence on Clarke and Ray Bradbury, who also employed Toynbee’s ideas). Some tiles are more conspiratorially bent and serve as commentary on Reagan-era Cold War politics with the Soviet Union.
Most relay this cryptic appeal:
IN KUBRICKS 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
St. Louis’ last Toynbee – WHICH SHOULD BE MOVED A FEW FEET INTO THE CITY ART PARK SO THAT IT CAN BE PRESERVED – sits where it has, on the street, awaiting it’s eventual fate…worn away more and more with each tire tread and foot fall. Many recent copycat/influenced tiles do still spot the city – with more being made each year. There are a number of so-called “HOUSE OF HADES” tiles that have shown up around town within the past 5 years – utilizing the Toynbee Tile ideas in message, style, and medium. The Toynbee demonstrating artistic and cultural influence nearly 40 years on.
If you want to find out more about this urban culture jam art mystery, check out the intriguing 2011 documentary “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.”