A Warning to Journalists
What do a pair of mysterious messages mean, and should anyone care?
Can you find the mysterious object in this picture?
This is it.
What could it be, and what does it mean?
It's a "Toynbee tile," one of hundreds
of similar tiles that have appeared in cities around the U.S. and South America, though it's not an authentic
Toynbee tile. This one appears to have been made by the "House of Hades" artist collective (or individual) in imitation of the original tiles, which first appeared in Philadelphia streets in the early 80s.
As a copycat, this House of Hades tile near the intersection of Clybourn and Water streets in Downtown Milwaukee strays from the singular message of the classic tiles. Typically, those contain a variation on a dreadfully simple yet puzzling "poem":
What's the Toynbee idea?
The British historian Arnold Toynbee, who died in 1975, predicted that humanity would one day become so advanced as to reanimate the dead on another planet, possibly Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. "In Movie 2001" is considered to be a reference to the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey
in which astronauts are propelled to an encounter with strange forces in/around/outside Jupiter, forces that somehow bring about a triumphant rebirth in the form of a giant space fetus.
Neither the maker of the original Toynbee tiles nor the House of Hades copycat(s) has ever been definitively identified. The stars of the documentary Resurrect Dead make a compelling and poetic case for a reclusive man living in a row home in Philadelphia, an address mentioned in one of the tiles (and the only address ever listed in a tile). They also uncovered evidence that that the same man contacted a number of newspapers in the early 80s in an attempt to promote the Toynbee idea but was laughed at and made the subject of at least one derisive story. This, they say, would explain the contempt for the news media expressed by many of the original tiles.
Milwaukee's second Toynbee tile is located just up Water Street from the one pictured above, at the intersection with Michigan Street, and it appears to be newer. (Taking this picture at about 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, I began to wonder if the tiles were, in fact, a ploy to lure reporters into oncoming traffic.)
Most remarkable has been the creator's
persistence in pursuing what must be an accident-prone obsession for decades. The amateur detectives of Resurrect Dead
concluded from an eyewitness report that the Philadelphia tile maker drove a car with a large hole in its floorboards, and this was how he avoided traffic long enough to carve into the asphalt. How the House of Hades artist(s) planted additional tiles in Milwaukee, Portland and other cities remains an open question.
Props to local actor Mark Neufang
who reported the location of Milwaukee's two tiles earlier this year on the film's Facebook page.