Sunday, February 20, 2011

Toynbee Tiles

Michelle, I didn't forget your suggestion! Michelle T. suggested a blog about Toynbee tiles YEARS ago, and I was fascinated by the idea but never managed to find one. The thing about Toynbee tiles is, they are a big mystery,they are usually located in the middle of busy intersections, and many have been lost to erosion and repaving over the years. I knew from my research the St Louis had at least three at one time, but despite spending a lot of time on foot in the downtown area, I'd never managed to spot one. UNTIL LAST NIGHT. We were walking back to our car after Monster Jam at the Edward Jones Dome and walked right over this Toynbee tile at Olive and 6th. I said, "Oh my god, it's a Toynbee tile!" and everyone did a 180 while scrambling for their camera phones. My people know a blogging opportunity when they hear it.


The origins of the Toynebee tiles are mysterious. According to Wikipedia, they first started appearing in the late 1980s. No one knows for sure who created them, and many copycats have popped up over the years. In fact, the bit at the bottom of this tile that's hard to make out says, "You must make + glue tiles!" Few new tiles have been spotted outside of the Philadelphia area since 2002. St Louis is one of the original locations for Toynbee tiles, and this is one of the classic examples of both design and message. The most well-documented St Louis tile was at Market and 7th, but I have not been able to find any online documentation of that one since 2007, and even at that time it was very worn. The other is/was at Market and 8th.

Toynbee tiles, as well as anyone has been able to figure, are made from linoleum face taped to tar paper. Asphalt glue is used to adhere them, and then some combination of sun and automobile traffic adheres them to the road. Most of the original tiles are some variation of the one above. Toynbee may refer to the historian Arthur Toynbee, or to the Ray Bradbury short story "A Toynbee Idea". Kubrick's 2001, obviously, refers to the movie 2001: A Space Odessey.

Beyond that, the motivation and message are a matter of intense debate and speculation. If you are interested in more information about the Toynbee tiles, I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry linked above, as well as this fantastic article from Wired magazine. If you know of any other surviving Toynbee tiles in the St Louis area or elsewhere, I'd love to hear about them!


  1. They are like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, surrounded by a secret. Thanks for this interesting post and pic, Beth. Can't wait to go see and photograph this myself. Todd

  2. I have seen that one before, but never any others...I didn't realize it was a "thing." Wild!

  3. A little late here but there is another in St. Louis approximately 2 blocks north and 2 blocks east of the one you found. I want to say it's on either Olive or Locust. Like most it's embedded in a cross walk at a 4 way intersection. It was in pretty good shape.

    I have also seen a bunch in St. Louis that say "You need to just relax". They're more recent looking and probably from someone completely different. They're made differently, but from some sort of tile that is strongly attached into the street.

  4. Saw my first "You need to just relax" tile over the weekend in downtown St. Louis on Pine by Schnucks. Had something that looked like Eraserhead on it. Creepy cool.

  5. Joe Parisi of St. Louis, MO is the main person responsible for the tiles placed over the last 10 years. He did a late night radio show on kdhx for a while and would regularly refer to a friend named Sevy from Philly...who was later named in the documentary as the original tile maker. Then he wrote about the tiles on a blog for a while, but that site was abruptly removed a few months ago.

    1. There's a new one at Northbound Tucker & Locust! It's a House of Hades one, but still cool. The other one is right in front of Left Bank Books downtown.

  6. Many tiles have a side text that says something like "you must make and glue tile". That's what Joe Parisi is doing. He's followed the instructions.

  7. Parisi is a fan who has made some tiles on his own. No direct connection to Philadelphia or the original tiles.

  8. Just found 3 at 6th and Market on the corner of City Park. See them at

  9. Looks like the ones on 6th and Olive we're covered up.