You’ve probably heard of Banksy, the edgy graffiti artist who works undercover. Popping up on urban buildings worldwide, Banksy’s work is notorious for its political undertones, admirable for its visual creativity, and often disruptive. As infamous as Banksy is, there is another incognito urban art form that you may be less familiar with, one that flies under the radar but may be right in your own downtown – the Toynbee Tiles. Today we would like to bring these unassuming tiles to the forefront of discussion.
Touted as a “polite” form of street art, the Toynbee Tiles are small plates embedded in the road that carry a cryptic message. The content usually references destruction, rebirth, and space travel. The interesting part to us? The tiles have been placed in over 130 major U.S. cities and even in South America, usually in bustling intersections, without the creators ever being spotted.
After serendipitously discovering a freshly laid tile late at night, one Philadelphia resident was able to shed light on how the process presumably works (source: Cleveland.com):
1. Cover the (linoleum) tile with tar paper.
2. Remove a section of floorboard from a car and drive to a major intersection late at night.
3. Place the tile onto the street using the hole in the floorboard and drive away. The tar-paper covering makes the tile look like a bump in the street.
4. In subsequent days, vehicles run over the tar paper, pushing the tile into the asphalt. The tar paper wears away over the letters but fills the spaces in between.
Basically, the premade tile is stealthily laid into a thick puddle of tar, which is compacted and fills the negative space in the letters as cars drive over it. The entire creation process is centered around protecting anonymity.
Nobody is 100% sure who is behind the Toynbee tiles, though there are several theories floating around. We won’t pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, so if you’re interested in investigating the person(s) behind this art form, check out the documentary “Resurrect Dead”.
Clevelanders, did you know that we have a Toynbee tile in our own city? That’s right, on the corner of West 3rd and West Prospect a small tile is nestled into the asphalt. You may be driving over a cryptic piece of modern art without even knowing it! This Thursday, we salute the idea of non-disruptive street art and all of the mystery it encompasses – both in its delivery and interpretation.
Sources: Damn Interesting, Cleveland.com