In the early hours of January 19th, 2009, a man in black—his face obscured by a long-brimmed hat—crossed the frost-laden grounds of Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and stopped before the cenotaph of Edgar Allen Poe. From the gate, where a crowd had gathered, the man could be seen to disburse his gifts: three long-stemmed roses, placed at the foot of the monument, and a bottle of cognac, which he raised in a toast to the writer’s engraved portrait. He drank a glass and left the mostly-full bottle beside the roses. It was a toast of which Poe himself might’ve approved, and it was assumed that the ritual would repeat on the next anniversary of Poe's birth, as it had for 70-odd years.
The Poe Toaster failed to appear the following year. Rather than let the ritual die, the city of Baltimore held a competition to select the next anonymous toaster. In 2015, the unnamed champion took his predecessor’s place.
That a competition for the anonymous role had any takers is quietly incredible. In most cases, the presumed outcome of a competition is a title, renown, and your name in lights, above the fold, on the marquee. In all cases, there’s a sense of credit where credit is due—a winner needs to be announced as such to make it real.
Much is made of credit in the arts, in particular, where reputation is currency and real currency is frequently posthumous (the new Toaster’s Latin toast to Poe: Cineri gloria sera venit, Glory comes too late to one’s ashes). But anonymous art is still produced and has a following. The patrons of anonymous artists, like the crowds that wait for the Poe Toaster, commit to the work, the performance, or the ritual; they realize that the identity of the artist is inconsequential, that the artwork stands alone, or can be more readily appreciated without the bias of ownership and branding.
The work of the Toynbee tiler, in contrast to the better known work of an artist like Banksy, has managed to elude categorization (is it street art? is it art, even?) and public renown, despite his output, which consists of over six-hundred linoleum tiles worldwide.
If you live in a large North or South American city or a select handful of Iraqi ones, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Toynbee tile. What you likely saw: a colorful or plain-white linoleum rectangle about the size of a license plate, set into layers of tarpaper on the asphalt of a roadbed. The words on the tile’s face, which variously make reference to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the media, and Jews, were carved out of the linoleum so that the surrounding tarpaper spread itself into the cut-out spaces, effectively gluing the tile to the city street. An ingenious bit of engineering, the Toynbee tile takes maximal advantage of the stresses of a city environment. The heat and pressure of passing traffic melts the tarpaper and presses the linoleum into the softened black tar; the tile becomes an element of the street, literally incorporated into the fabric of the city. The only way to remove a Toynbee tile is to pave over it—and, even then, it’s still there. The most common message—“Toynbee Idea: In Kubrick’s 2001, resurrect dead on planet Jupiter”—has no apparent relation to the locales in which it’s appeared. One gets the feeling that its author, more than anything else, simply wants to get the word out.
Far more fascinating and mystifying than the tiles’ cryptic messaging is the identity of the tiles’ creator. He or she or they managed to plant each of over six-hundred tiles in the middle of as many roadways, a good number of them bustling thoroughfares in large cities. Toynbee enthusiasts have theorized that the tarpaper packages were deposited at night, through the open floorboard of a car jerry-rigged for that purpose.
According to Steve Weinik, a Philadelphia resident and Toynbee researcher, the tiles’ meaning can be taken literally: sometime in the late 70s, when the first tiles were discovered, someone read the historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee’s Experiences and watched Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and had an idea: the human race must establish a colony for the afterlife on the planet Jupiter. “It’s a purely materialist worldview,” writes Weinik, “not all that different than a Star Trek transporter, with a little Law of Complexity-Consciousness thrown in.” A little philosophy of materialism here, a little sci-fi-inspired imagining there, and you’ve got the makings of a cross-continental crusade to colonize Jupiter for the dead.
In the 2011 documentary “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles,” Weinik joined with two other Toynbee researchers to track down the original tiler. Baby-faced and soft-spoken, Weinik contributed a Philadelphia native’s know-how to the quest for the incognito tiler. The researchers’ primary lead—a Philadelphia address listed in the side text of a tile found in Chile—took them to a block of row houses in Philly. They were confident that the tiler was acting alone (“I’m only one man,” he’d written in the side text of one tile).
Neighbors told Weinik that Severino “Sevy” Verna was a reclusive man who was partial to late night excursions. The passenger side of his car didn’t have a floorboard, one woman remarked. Fragments of linoleum tile, scatterings of words and letters, dotted the streets of Verna’s neighborhood; a proving ground, Weinik thought, for the concept that would eventually become the Toynbee tiles. It all clicked, in Weinik’s mind.
As a middle school student in Philadelphia in the 80s, Weinik was intrigued by the strange, colorful linoleum swatches dotting the streets of his hometown. With the advent of the internet, he discovered that what he’d taken to be a local phenomenon was, in fact, international. Now a photographer of street art and murals in Philly, he hesitates to lump the tiles with traditional street art, or art in general.
“It’d probably most closely resemble outsider art,” says Weinik:
It’s not quite graffiti and it’s not quite street art. It has a different motivation, and I’m guessing that the tiler’s primary focus was spreading the message and [his secondary focus] was artistic. But he clearly did seek time to make them pretty, especially in the 90s, and he did invent the technique which other people, more traditional street artists, are now using. In that way, you could absolutely call him an artist. It’s creative. You could call it innovative. He absolutely invented a new medium that’s used by artists and he did it in a creative and aesthetically pleasing way. But I think for him the message was more important than the medium.
Weinik suspects that Verna-as-tiler attempted to reach out to the press in the 80s but was swiftly rebuffed. He gave voice to his frustrations in the margins of his tiles, one of which exhorted the public to “Kill all journalists. I beg you.” Left to his own devices, Verna drove up and down his street with an outsize antenna attached to the roof of his car (whose passenger-side floorboard was missing, neighbors would later confirm). According to “Resurrect Dead,” he then broadcast his message via shortwave radio signal. As he drove past a house, any television sets inside would briefly flicker and broadcast his words, much to the consternation of their owners.
The tiler waxed artistic in the mid-90s. Side text and images grew increasingly elaborate; in a departure from the standard black tar and white-linoleum of his earlier tiles, the tiler began lettering his tiles with multi-colored linoleum. Pictures of women’s legs and colorful borders flanked the tiles’ message, which remained largely unchanged.
The tiler had his own renaissance in the form of wild experimentation with colors and shapes. In recent times (“I just saw a new tile three months ago,” says Weinik), the tiler has experimented with the potentials of his medium—thin, tape-like strips of tile; tiles split into multiple, smaller tiles planted in freeways and intended to be legible to motorists; smaller, index-card-sized tiles, miniatures of the original, license-plate-sized variant.
The tiles aren’t art in the most traditional sense of the word—not as Toynbee researchers have determined that aesthetics were, and are, secondary motivations for the tiler. That’s not to say that visual pieces with a political bent must be relegated to the less lofty realm of propaganda. Shepard Fairey, the American street artist responsible for the OBEY street art giant and 2008’s iconic Obama “Hope” poster, ensured that aesthetics informed politics and vice versa.
Taking the long view of the tiles, however, it’s difficult to overlook the small community of tile artists that’s sprung up in the tiler’s wake. The anonymous House of Hades tiler, who began his work in Buffalo, NY, employs Verna’s technique to spread his own message, which pays sly homage to the text of the original tiles:
HOUSE OF HADES
TILES MADE FROM THE GROUND BONES
OF DEAD JOURNALISTS.
In the world of ignominious copyright squabbles, Verna might’ve patented his tarpaper delivery system and brought suit against House of Hades. He wouldn’t be the first: many street artists profit from their public creations. Banksy’s pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction; Shepard Fairey's OBEY has been “manufacturing quality dissent since 1989,” or so its web store claims. So much anti-establishment art becomes a unit of the entity it’d formerly railed against, as when clothing stores in the 60s began selling the trappings of hippie counterculture (jeans, fringe, beads) back to a consumer base only dimly aware of the irony of the transaction.
Banksy and the tiler are separated by the fervor of their politicism (the tiler’s borders on the fanatical) and their time-and place-specificity. The tiler makes mention of events that must have had currency at some point. “It’s a reality, but it’s not this reality,” Weinik says, in reference to the tiler’s fixation with the USSR. The unified message in New York City, in Chicago, in Philadelphia remained constant: down with the press! Resurrect dead! You—yes, you—must make and glue tiles! The tiler’s anachronicity and messaging never strayed far from these boilerplates. As a result, for all their ubiquity, the tiles show no apparent allegiance to the cities of their origin, and have none of the location-affinity that defines street art.
“The city is the assumed interlocutor, framework, and essential precondition for making the artwork work,” writes Martin Irvine, a professor of communications at Georgetown University. “[Street artists] are compelled to state something in and with the city.” Toynbee tiles, by contrast, crop up like regional franchises of a multi-national corporation, reliably consistent in their appearance and messaging.
This indifference to locale has aided the tiler’s anonymity—even the most ardent of the Toynbee faithful have limited evidence from which to draw their conclusions. The researchers of Resurrect Dead might’ve made it as far as Severino Verna’s doorstep, but, to the end, the tiler’s communication with his world was mostly one-sided: you can stand on the tiler’s stoop, but you sure as hell can’t make him answer his door. For Toynbee followers, the tiler’s dialogic silence has actually amounted to endless free rein. At liberty to appropriate his technique and theories without fear of reprimand, Toynbee fans have made the roadway their canvas, established their own variations on the tar-glued linoleum cutout (Stikman, for instance, uses road tape to doodle robots), and converted the sci-fi / political statement into an aesthetic one. So, even if the tiler might not consider himself an artist, I’d consider his tiles a work of global installment art—a strange, eccentric commentary on bygone times and an introduction to tar-and-tile as medium.
There’s an element of altruism to anonymity, a deliberate swearing-off of immediate credit-where-credit-is-due. Concomitant with the idea of anonymity is the possibility of credit, the willingness of an audience to confer recognition (it’s worth noting that, for the obscure artist, such recognition isn’t even forthcoming). Named artists gladly accept their due, but the buck stops short when the artist is unknown.
One wonders why the tiler clings to anonymity, even after inscribing his address in one of his works. The anonymous creator must have a unique affinity with his craft—enough that he believes that his work will speak, sans brand or label, to a public accustomed to the crutch of brands and labels. Enough, also, that he can allow his own identity to be subsumed by the heft of the message he feels duty-bound to transmit. These artists are rare, and they’ve got their audiences, in large part, to thank—the Houses of Hades and Stikmen and other emulators (and impostors!) who’ve plucked the medium from the grime of the roadbed and elevated it to an art form.
There must be some allure to remaining nameless. Some might accuse anonymous artists of irresponsibility—of orphaning their work and leaving it in the hands of a ruthless public. (If we’re to extend and torture that metaphor, however, the IP lawsuit might be akin to a long, bitter custody battle.) For the Toynbee tiler, anonymity became a one-way mirror. Cities and roads were subject to his project and purpose while he remained essentially unreachable, immune to any kind of feedback.
And there might lie the allure: the willing forfeiture of ownership and, with it, the burden of responsibility and identification—one imagines that, for a brief moment, before some detail of the tiler’s workmanship is observed and authorship is assigned, each new tile is afforded an absolutely objective examination. Unclaimed and unattached, the tile can speak for itself—“Resurrect dead” is read afresh and puzzled over, the ingenuity of the delivery system is noted, and the tile’s aesthetic is appreciated on its own terms, sans authorial context. Unadulterated appreciation of the work—what more could an artist ask for?
Madelyne Xiao studies mathematics and comparative literature at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the New York Times, and the Stanford Arts Review. She co-edits Topiary, a Stanford-based literary journal, at www.thetopiary.org.