Strange Symbols Appearing in UK Are Reminiscent of the Toynbee Tiles

A typical Toynbee Tile

There are many ways one can express oneself in today’s world.  I choose the written word, others choose song, still others choose dance, photography, sculpture, paint, and even graffiti, and that last one presents some interesting, if cryptic, works for us to ponder.

Even within that…genre…of art, there are many types, styles, and motivations.  There are many perspectives on its value as a medium of art, and as a method of communication, but it can hardly be denied that as a form of self-expression, graffiti is as effective as any other, perhaps more so.

Of course, there are forms of graffiti that are more difficult to classify as a form of art, even though much effort goes into its design and execution, and its impact on our culture is undeniable.  The issue seems to be that the controversial and sometimes political nature of the form gets in the way, but as many would argue, myself included, the message conveyed by art is nearly always political, and if successful, is always intended to be controversially transformative.

There are works of graffiti that you might not readily identify as a work of art, though they are, undeniably.

One of the Uxbridge Markers

Very recently, reported through a YouTube video, a series of markers has been found spray painted on the ground in West London, UK.  The markers, which take the form of symbols – a square center dot, surrounded by radiating narrow triangles, causing the entire marker to appear as a stylized sun or possibly a windmill – appeared suddenly on the roadway near the intersection of Grove Road and Grove Way in Uxbridge, London.  The YouTube video, shot and uploaded by an English woman going by the name Maria Speechley, clearly shows the symbols or markers as found, which are all white and apparently quite fresh.  Speechley reported the find to the Uxbridge news outlet getwestlondon, who published a public call for more information and further sightings on March 26.

Speechley, through the video, offers commentary and excited speculation about the appearance and purpose of the markers, claiming that no one knows who made them, or when.  She briefly theorises that they could have some secret purpose, possibly related to aliens or a secret society, but Alan Hayes of getwestlondon wisely reminds that local police have warned of these symbols, citing that they are sometimes used by nefarious types to mark possible locations for burglary.

Arnold J. Toynbee

One thing is perfectly clear, however, and that is that such graffiti, as this could only be described, serves its purpose well, in that it has caught the attention of passers-by, and has conveyed a message, inaccurate as it may be.

The strange and cryptic nature of the Uxbridge symbols reminds of other, much more mysterious works of graffiti art around the world.  Specifically, the Toynbee Tiles.

The Toynbee Tiles are a series of placards that have somehow been embedded into the pavement of roadways in various cities across the US.  They typically consist of a rectangular sign, often about the size of an American license plate (30cm by 15cm), and they display some variation of the text below.

IN MOViE `2001

So what, exactly, does that mean?  No one really knows, but there are several theories.

Just based on the text alone, there is a definite reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both through the words “movie ‘2001” and by the reference to Jupiter.  Some versions of the tiles actually name Kubrick directly, but this might be explained away.

Hal, from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

There’s also the clear reference to Arnold J. Toynbee, who was a prolific British historian best known for his study of the rise and fall of 26 different civilizations throughout human history.  Some argue that this isn’t a direct reference to Toynbee, but rather is a reference to Ray Bradbury’s short story called The Toynbee Convector, which was inspired, at least in name, by A.J. Toynbee.

Those references, however, are the only parts of the Toynbee Tile mystery that are clear, or relatively clear, as the case may be.  What they mean, either the tiles or the references, is still totally open for debate.  As anyone who’s seen 2001 can tell you, the reference to Jupiter and resurrecting the dead comes straight from Kubrick’s imagination, but what it means with respect to Toynbee or the purpose of the tiles remains a complete mystery.

The originator of the tiles remains unidentified, even though a Toynbee Tile researcher claims to have uncovered several letters written by the maker in the early 1990’s, which apparently allude to a passage from Arnold Toynbee’s book Experiences (Pages 139-142):

“Human nature presents human minds with a puzzle which they have not yet solved and may never succeed in solving, for all that we can tell. The dichotomy of a human being into ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is not a datum of experience. No one has ever been, or ever met, a living human soul without a body… Someone who accepts—as I myself do, taking it on trust—the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more ‘scientifically’ if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.”

The possible connection to Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector, might suggest that the originator wished to convey the message that humanity needs to, in his or her view, strive for greater achievements in order to successfully move into the future.  Some have said that the reference to Jupiter means that the message is to travel to and colonise the planet.  A lofty goal indeed.

There are others who believe that there are connections to Arthur C. Clark’s Jupiter V, and at least one person believes that the tiles are an homage to playwright David Mamet and his 1983 play titled 4A.M.  Namely Mamet himself, who has often claimed to be greatly flattered by the honour.

Some of the Toynbee Tiles attempt to incite others to create and lay their own

Most of the tiles, of which there have been many over the years, first appeared in Philadelphia in the early-to-mid 1980’s, but they continue to appear across the US even today, and at least one has appeared in South America.  Though most if not all of the more recent examples are certain to be copy-cat tiles, placed by enthusiasts in order to honour the originator or to commemorate certain associated dates.

So far, the most compelling theory of how they are created and applied to the pavement as they are, was advanced by tile enthusiast Justin Duerr, who claims that they are a composite form made of layers of linoleum and some form of asphalt glue (whatever that may actually be), wrapped in tar paper.  Others claim that this composite construction is laid on roadways, inside the tar paper, and the action of vehicles driving over them crushes the form into the pavement and wears away the paper, ultimately revealing the tile.

There are, at least superficially, some parallels between the Toynbee Tiles and the Uxbridge markers, but perhaps we’re reading a bit much into it.  Whatever they are, in either case, the mystery may be worth more than any answers.  As it is, we are free to imagine that the tiles or the markers are some strange vestige of a world hidden away from us, a romantic and perhaps dark connection to a storyline beyond our understanding, and in that way it inspires our imaginations to conjure a reality that is larger than our own.  If, through finding answers to this mystery, we find that the elements of these things lie in something mundane, or nefarious, or – heaven forbid – commercial and manipulative, we would be worse off for it.

For now we can say that we do not know what they are or why they exist, we can revel in the idea that they hold a meaning worth protecting, and that makes them precious in their own right.

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