For the next few weeks, much of my computer-time energy will be channeled into a secret project, the results of which I will share with the world when the time is right. That means I might rerun some old writing. It also means that this evening I’m going to be about as vain as I’ve ever been before and share with you an interview of myself.
I didn’t interview myself, the questions were thought up by someone over in the UK who’s writing an article on the Toynbee tiles. As you’ll read, I answered his questions very loosely, often drifting off-topic or going off on some tangentially related personal story. A note also, if I ignored whole sections of the questions, it was with the knowledge that the Resurrect Dead filmmakers would cover those bases.
Friends and loved ones sometimes don’t understand the fascination I have with these tiles. This is the most comprehensive personal account. It’s that more than vanity that makes me believe that some of you might want to read this. So before I’m misquoted, here’s what I said:
o What is it that fascinates you about the tiles, and how did you first become so interested in them?
My first experiences exploring the city on my own came when I was 12-13 years old, going to school in Philly’s center city. After school, sometimes I’d go down to the video arcade or wander the streets in the surrounding blocks. There were a few tiles right there and I remember being interested in them… wondering what a “toynbee” was. This was in 1993 or so.
Over the next decade, the tiles were omnipresent in the streets of Philly. Back in 2000/2001, I had a girlfriend who refused to sleep over. I’d end up walking her home from 23rd street to her house near 13th at 3 or 4 in the morning.
Walking home alone I’d get a real sense of Philly’s early, early morning seediness. There’s a stillness. When everything is quiet you can sense the underlying feeling of this city. It’s very dense and it’s very quiet… difficult to describe. Mostly the streets are dead empty, but the people that are out are the rawest and the most uniquely Philadelphian. You meet the strangest people at 4 in the morning. The tiler was one of these people. I also remember changing my walks to take me by the then disappearing tiles. This is when the research end of my fascination began. It started and stopped a few times over the years, but really kicked in Spring of 2005.
o Which is most important to you, the message on the tiles, or the ‘whodunit’ mystery surrounding them?
These questions are inextricably linked. The mystery of it drove my will to research, but the research itself was far more fascinating than most things that I’ve studied. This is coming from someone who enjoys the whole research process. I majored in history at the University of Penn. I’ve spent plenty of hours locked in libraries, poring over old documents. Researching the tiles, their maker and its message has been full of coincidence so ripe that it’s sometimes difficult to believe. At this point, most of the physical facts, who, what, when, where, why and how have been answered. The answers aren’t necessarily magical, but the process that led us to those answers sort of was. Dead leads ended up bearing fruit for completely unrelated and bizarrely coincidental reasons.
o The names James Morasco, ‘Railroad Joe’ and playwright David Mamet often crop up in theories about the originator of the tile. Are you all convinced that neither of these men were the original tiler? Do you know if they were indeed involved in some way?
o How certain are you that the newer tiles are the work of a copycat? Is it reasonable to wonder whether the new tiles are being laid by an ‘apprentice’ of the original tiler?
This is the biggest remaining question. I’m split between the firm belief that they are copycats, but I almost as firmly believe that they aren’t. It’s split almost down the middle. Here’s for the belief that they are:
They’re made of a different material and are stylistically inferior. They show far less skill and craftsmanship.
The font is completely different.
Some of the new messages seem more contrived, like a younger sane person trying to sound like a “crazy old tiler.” Also switching Resurrect to Raise really changes a lot meaning-wise. I don’t think the original tiler would do that.
They’re placed differently in the street.
With 1 known exception they’re only in Philadelphia (but this could actually work both ways)
Justin Duerr (who’s opinion is always right about the tiles is convinced that they’re copycats)
Here’s to the belief that they’re originals.
Whatever the tiles were made of, maybe the tiler ran out of that material and couldn’t find any more. Maybe the original tiles were made with his basement floor and he just ran out of the old linoleum.
The new font might be an attempt to make the tiles more legible. This is especially true of the highway tiles.
Differing placement might be an attempt to shift to a different target audience. The new, small tiles are more pedestrian friendly. They also follow public transportation routes, esp the el and subways.
The first examples of the new tiles are some of the nicest and most intricate in design. Whoever the new tiler is, their lack of craftsmanship in later tiles is probably due to a switch towards quantity over quality. In the last few years, the new school tiler has glued more than 100 tiles in Philadelphia. There are probably many more that never took or remain ‘undiscovered.’ That’s the entire output of the previous 20+ years in less than 5. If it is the same tiler, the lack of ‘skill’ may be explained by a focus on quantity over quality.
We know certain things about the suspected tile-gluer that indicates exactly why only 1 tile has been found outside of Philly since 2001/2002. It would also explain why he’d presently only be active in Philadelphia.
o From what I’ve read, your research whilst making the movie has brought up lots of interesting facts, such as the fact that original tiler once gave an interview on Larry King. How much are you able to share about what you know about the tiler?
Anything that can be shared has been shared. Much more will come in time. The What, When, Why and How is mostly out there. For obvious reasons, the “who” will remain a secret. There are other documents and details that will be revealed at that time as well.
o The ‘Cult of the Hellion’ is something that keeps cropping up, yet any attempts at researching this ultimately come to a dead-end. How much do you know about it?
This comes from the infamous manifesto tile once glued at 16th and Chestnut in Philadelphia. Any non-tile inspired reference to the Cult of the Hellion has yet to appear anywhere that I know of.
o Speaking of your website, I’ve read posts where you discuss that the (new) tiler is aware of your website and pasting new tiles according to discussions you have on the net. Is this just a theory or are you convinced by this, and if so, has it led to you being any closer to tracking the new tiler down?
The new tiler, if they exist has actually been more elusive than the original tiler. They leave fewer traces and clues.
o You’ve said that the tiles are rapidly disappearing. How many are around now and is anything done to preserve them.
Not presently, although some cities actively destroy them, Chicago (verified) and possibly New York.
o How interested are you in the ‘artistic merit’ of the tiles rather than the theories and conspiracies?
Very. This is a totally unique form of art. The original tiles were beautifully constructed. Figuring out how to – in seconds – adhere them to the busiest city streets, undetected and in a way that’s almost entirely undetectable until they’re well embedded into the asphalt is tremendously ingenious. The whole process is completely unique and astounding. Spreading them across dozens of locations in 4 different countries is equally impressive. The theories and conspiracies are just icing on the cake.
o And finally, how’s the film getting on?
I’m not involved in the production of the film.