At an unknown hour of an unknown day in the summer of 2009, an art thief knelt at the intersection of Sixth and Olive streets in downtown St. Louis. The thief gouged at the asphalt with a putty knife. Finally, after some work, the criminal disappeared into the crowds of night with the prize in hand (or into the crowds of day—no one knows, and the culprit is still on the loose).

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gecko_dadd/Instagram

What was so valuable that someone would risk such a public act of thievery? For that matter, what kind of artist chooses the city street for a canvas?

The answers won’t clear things up much. This is the story of the Toynbee Tiles. If you’re looking for answers, sorry: you’ll only find more questions here.

Origins and First Sightings: Philadelphia, the 1980s

Sometime in the 1980s, Philadelphia pedestrians started to notice strange colored squares embedded in their streets. There weren’t many at first. The plaques were roughly the size of a license plate and made of layered linoleum and asphalt crack filler.

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Steve Weinik (via Toynbee Tiles)

The tiles contained a message, usually the same message, with minor variations:

TOYNBEE IDEA

KUBRICK MOVIE 2001

RESURRECT DEAD

ON PLANET JUPITER

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IMDb

It looks like gibberish—until you consider that related concepts were surfacing in the art and media worlds around the same time. In 1983, playwright David Mamet published a one-act play titled 4 A.M. The show tells the story of a nighttime talk radio host who fields a bizarre phone call. The caller believes he’s found a connection between British historian Arnold Toynbee, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a developing plan to populate planet Jupiter with Earth’s dead.

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IMDb

Mamet later said that he invented the caller’s particular brand of fantasy, but the story has a lot in common with an actual phone call delivered to an actual Philadelphia journalist earlier that year. In those days, Clark DeLeon wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His entry for March 13, 1983, bore the headline, “Theories: Wanna Run That by Me Again?

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Chestnut Hill Local

DeLeon described a phone call from a man who called himself James Morasco, a social worker. Morasco told DeLeon, as the latter reports, that “the planet Jupiter would be colonized by bringing all the people on Earth who had ever died back to life and then changing Jupiter’s atmosphere to allow them to live.”

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IMDb

Morasco went on to say that he had this revelation while reading Toynbee. The psychedelic final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey depict this arcane process, Morasco said.

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Kevin Riley (via Toynbee Tiles)

So the ideas behind the Tiles were out there. The question remains: Who was spreading them through DIY street work? And how?

The Media Catches On: Baltimore, the 1990s

The Toynbee Tiles quietly spread throughout Philadelphia and beyond. The first news account of the phenomenon comes from The Baltimore Sun, whose reporter Rob Hiaasen covered the story, beginning with an Oct. 19, 1994, piece headlined “The word on the street turns cryptic.

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Baltimore Sun

Hiaasen’s report is the first to count the tiles, of which there were at least seven in Baltimore at that time (later reporting uncovered more than a dozen). Some of Hiaasen’s sources reported seeing the tiles in other cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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david_reyer/Instagram

Soon, the Toynbee Tiles would be everywhere, jealously sought out by self-ordained experts and journalists alike.

The Message Spreads: Everywhere, the 2000s

By 2011, amateur Toynbee Tile enthusiasts had found tiles in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. However, sometimes the message changed. One notable tile told readers, “You must make and glue tiles…You as media is” [sic]. Plenty of copycats took the original artist up on that advice.

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Kevin Riley (via Toynbee Tiles)

Philadelphia punk rocker Justin Duerr is one of the foremost chroniclers of the Toynbee Tile phenomenon. He began researching the phenomenon in 2005, and he claims to have made the most valuable discovery in the field: a freshly laid tile, covered in tar paper.

This discovery allowed Duerr to formulate a compelling theory of the original artist’s technique. Duerr theorizes that the artist makes the tiles, covers the surface in tar paper, and drops them into the street—perhaps through a hole in a vehicle’s floor.

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Justin Duerr (via Toynbee Tile)

The tar paper renders the tile invisible to passing drivers. As hundreds and thousands of cars run over the piece, they drive it deeply into the asphalt. By the time the tar paper wears away completely, the tile has become part of the road itself.

The Artist Discovered? Celluloid, 2011

Researchers into the Toynbee Tiles formed an unofficial underground club over the years. They didn’t have meetings, and they didn’t collect dues, but they posted online to various forums. People found and reported hundreds of the pieces scattered all over the United States (as well as at least three in South America.)

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Steve Weinik (via Toynbee Tiles)

In 2011, filmmaker Jon Foy released a documentary that brought the Toynbee Tiles and their followers into mainstream recognition. The film, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, won a Directing Award for Foy at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

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Steve Weinik (via IMDb)

More importantly, Foy and his subjects (including Duerr) claim to have uncovered the identity of the original artist. Duerr believes that a peculiar Philadelphia resident named Severino “Sevy” Verna is the man behind the phenomenon.

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Kevin Riley (via Toynbee Tiles)

Verna’s neighbors provide the smoking gun, telling the filmmakers that Verna’s car doesn’t have floorboards. This fit with Duerr’s theory of how the artist could lay tiles, unseen, in the middle of busy intersections by dropping them through a hole in the floor of a car. Verna used the name James Morasco as an alias, the investigators suggest.

Meanwhile, Back in St. Louis

The 2009 theft of an original Toynbee Tile from the street in St. Louis is part of a developing trend.

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iStock

Foy’s documentary shined a spotlight on the street art, and thieves came running. Some assume the tiles will be worth lots of money one day. Others delude themselves into thinking that they’re “protecting” priceless works of art (and, indeed, many of the tiles have been paved over by indifferent city streets departments.)

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iStock

In St. Louis, two Toynbee Tiles were paved over in 2009. The thief we’ve discussed made off with another. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is just one Toynbee Tile left in the city’s downtown area. (It’s at Market and Eighth streets for curious explorers). For now, at least, the mystery persists.