Thomas Dambo’s Giant Trolls – A Quirky Worldwide Sustainability Project

Isak Heartstone, Breckenridge, Colorado, USA

photography by: Anthony Quintano / Flickr

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Folk stories surrounding trolls tend to depict them as ferocious and terrible creatures, causing great danger and damage to individuals unfortunate enough to cross their paths. One Danish artist is attempting to portray these mythological beasts in a different light: as beings of light and love, filled with compassion and caring for the natural world. Thomas Dambo’s trolls are not just sculptures: they are a link to the land and to the ancestral people that once, or in some cases still do, live there. Made from recycled materials including discarded shipping pallets, disused furniture, lumber scraps and fallen trees, Dambo’s aim is to change people’s perspective of trash as something with no value to something big, beautiful and beneficial to the community. The popularity of most of his trolls, once people have found their obscure locations, seems to imply that his strategy is working.

Troll Legends

Dating back to Norse mythology in 12th century Iceland, trolls take on a number of characteristics in ancient legends. From the demons of the Old English Beowulf to the beautiful allure of the Norwegian huldras, trolls were considered by different accounts to be fearsome, intelligent and invariably vicious creatures.

 

Their image was somewhat softened by the reimagined Grimm fairytales collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe and illustrated by Theodor Kittelsen. These 19th century retellings of antiquated tales cast trolls as gullible creatures, goofy and gap-toothed like in the story of Three Billy Goats Gruff and this popularised image remains to this day in gift shops and tourist traps all across Scandinavia.

 

However, there is a common thread between these modern, more approachable creatures and the monsters of days of yore: trolls remain the guardians of the forest and the mountains, living deep in the wilderness and put on earth to protect the rural landscape they call home.

Wild-haired Søren, one of the Guardians of the Seeds. Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, USA.

photography by: Anthony Quintano / Flickr


Thomas Dambo’s Early Years and Influences

Born in Odense in 1979, Thomas Dambo is an artist currently based in Copenhagen. His Danish upbringing included being educated in a small country school, where an unorthodox teacher named Mogens would read fairytales to the students at lunchtime and who encouraged students to scavenge supplies for their own miniature building projects in the steadfast belief that nothing should be wasted.

 

He lived on a collective farm with his parents, a kindergarten teacher and metalworker-turned-bicycle-repairman who was especially good at recycling and repurposing old two-wheelers. These influences exacerbated an already burgeoning love of treasure hunts in the young, energetic Dambo and clearly fostered his desire and ultimate ability to communicate with the world via the unique medium of upcycled materials in the form of giant trolls. He went on to obtain a master’s degree in design and is now considered by many to be the world’s leading recycle-artist.

 

Even his name attests to his capacity for reinvention: originally Dambo’s surname was Winter but he reconfigured his childhood diagnosis of DAMP (deficits in attention, motor control and perception abilities) to create a nickname and the artist “Dambo” was born. While he is now best known for his beloved troll sculptures, his storied career has also encompassed the Danish skateboard, graffiti and hip-hop communities, particularly performing live as a beatboxer.

Bjarke Cirkelsten in Søvang, Amager, Denmark. Part of the Great Troll Folk Fest created as a Covid-19-friendly treasure hunt in 2020.

photography by: Sinéad Browne


First Sculptures: the Birdhouses

While Dambo dabbled in a number of artistic endeavours, his first sculptures were part of a project he called Happy City Birds, devised while he was a student at Denmark’s Design School Kolding in 2010. He loved graffiti but because it was illegal, he came up with something equally unauthorised but rarely complained about because they were beloved by all: a series of 250 birdhouses made from scrap wood and donated paint, which resulted in him embarking on a 2-week tour of Denmark on his Christiania bike to set them all up.

 

A highlight of the project was 2012’s Roskilde Festival, where volunteers constructed 640 birdhouses that were subsequently given away to festival-goers in the hope of spreading Dambo’s recycling message beyond Denmark.  The project continues to grow and Dambo estimates that there are now more than 3,500 birdhouses in Denmark, Germany and further afield.

Happy City Birds birdhouses in Nordic colours for Nordic Culture Night in Copenhagen in 2012

photography by: Vita Thomsen/ Wikimedia Commons


First Troll Sculptures

While the birdhouses were an exciting project for Dambo, bigger things awaited – much bigger as it turns out. In 2012, on the island of Mors in Denmark, Dambo and his team were hired to create a sculpture at the local culture festival.

 

Following an innovative kids’ workshop to teach them about recycling, the leftover wood was used to make Dambo’s first troll sculpture, Jack Lumber. Jack still sits on the island, happily munching on a piece of wood with his arm outstretched holding a nearby tree. While Jack was certainly a troll, the first true giant troll (in mythology, a rare subrace of trolls that resulted from the crossbreeding of trolls and hill giants) was Hector El Protector, one of Dambo’s most famous and storied works to date.

 

The original Hector was created on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra in 2014. He sat at the water’s edge with a rock in his hand, ready to challenge any invaders with harmful intentions. However, Hector’s rock was no match for the deadly Hurricane Maria, which struck the island with devastating force in 2017, resulting in a major humanitarian crisis.

 

Recognising the need to uplift the spirits of the islanders, Dambo returned to rebuild Hector in 2019 but this time the rock was replaced by a solar-powered lantern made from a recycled trash can, purportedly to allow boats to see the coastline in a storm but also representing Culebra’s bright future.

 

Local schoolchildren created a giant necklace for Hector 2.0, fashioned from whatever they considered to be treasure found locally and making them feel that they too were helping to protect their homeland.  Dambo’s reward was a song written by the schoolchildren for him, a heartwarming moment captured on video and published to YouTube.


Trolls Around the World

Almost a decade on from the original Hector El Protector, Dambo has now built over 100 giant trolls across the globe including in the USA, England, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, China, South Korea, Singapore, Puerto Rico and Australia.

 

These combined efforts have used 14,000 pallets and 250 tonnes of scrap wood that would otherwise likely be in landfill sites. Each 15- to 30-foot-high troll takes 500 to 1,000 hours to make so Dambo enlists volunteers wherever he goes – he estimates that his work to date has included 1,500 people over 75,000 working hours.

 

To describe each of Dambo’s trolls as unique would be an understatement – he approaches each project as an artist rather than an engineer and he spends hours searching for the perfect hidden spots until a certain scene speaks to his imagination.

 

The finished products are therefore an organic tapestry, individual personalities woven seamlessly from the local landscape and accompanied by their own fairytales, written by Dambo himself and often told in the form of poetry on his website or on YouTube. Many are named after people who were instrumental in building them and therefore bear the names of local teachers, craftspeople and volunteers.

Little Tilde, Vallensbæk Mose, Copenhagen. Named after a local volunteer who helped to build her. Little Tilde has 28 birdhouses inside to provide shelter to the local fauna.

photography by: Lars Ploughman/ Flickr


Sculpture Series

While some of the trolls stand alone or in small groups, Dambo has also created linked series of trolls to tell “the great story of the little people and the giant trolls”, a saga explaining the relationship between humans and the great mythological beings.

 

His first series was “Forgotten Giants”, built across the western municipalities of Copenhagen in 2016 as a treasure hunt, not just to find the trolls but also to encourage people to get into nature and discover their own unremembered or undiscovered hidden gems. The sequel to Forgotten Giants is “Mountain Trolls”, 5 huge sculptures built in Pyunggang Land, South Korea in 2018.

 

“Troll Hunt” followed soon after at Morton Arboretum, Chicago: a series of six trolls who have become disillusioned with humans’ continuous pollution and destruction of their beloved nature and who have decided to catch the little beings to teach them a lesson.

 

While the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 halted Dambo’s international works, it resulted in the creation of a new treasure hunt in his native Denmark entitled “Den Kæmpestore Troldefolkfest” (The Great Troll Folk Fest). These ten trolls became a hugely popular corona-friendly activity for people desperately in need of an adventure.

 

“Save the Humans” (2021, South Coast Botanic Garden, Palos Verdes, California) ties many of Dambo’s trolls together, as the ancient creatures gather at their regular every-211th-year meeting to talk about how humans have stopped listening to nature and have created so much environmental destruction that they must now be eaten to save the world.  Six young trolls believe the humans can be redeemed and they set out on a mission to inspire the little people to rediscover their roots as stewards of the earth.

 

Other series, such as “The 7 Trolls and the Magical Tower” (2019, Boom, Belgium), “Guardians of the Seeds” (2021, Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, Maine, USA) and “The Rhythm of Raindrops” (2022, Mandurah, Australia) focus on ongoing environmental issues in the various regions where they are located. Dambo’s current project, “The Way of the Bird King”, stretches across the USA and encompasses links to ancestral people of the lands where he builds his trolls.


Individual Trolls of Note

While the troll groupings are some of Dambo’s best-known works, many of his individual projects have even more fascinating tales to tell. Perhaps the most famous of these is Isak Heartstone, Dambo’s 40th recycled wood sculpture made for Breckenridge Creative Arts Festival in Colorado in 2018 and named after three local girls who gave him his stone heart.

 

Isak was seated and playing with rocks, trying to build a new mountain as a nod to the area’s mining past. He proved so popular, attracting over 3,000 visitors some days, that it created parking and traffic management chaos so he was ultimately torn down. Dambo’s response was initially to write a reggae song (“Isak Heartstone Killed by the Government”) and he subsequently returned to rebuild Isak, this time with his own trail to avoid congestion.

 

Other Dambo trolls are notable for their impact on the community. The city of Horsens in Denmark commissioned Troels the Troll in 2015 as part of their artistic “Feel Horsens” campaign. Troels was created using recycled rafter beams inside to support a swing for local kids and proved so popular that Dambo was asked to return in 2017 to make Troels two “children” of his own; Laura and Julian, baby trolls who hold each end of a slackline.

 

Even when building individual sculptures, Dambo is focused on gamifying the search for the trolls, located as they are in out-of-the-way places. His intention is that this will attract younger people away from their computer screens and towards an external world full of magic and adventure that they will then be inspired to protect.

 

This was particularly evident in his 100th troll sculpture, “Måne Mor”, created in 2023. The pregnant troll is hiding in a secret spot waiting to give birth and those who wanted to find her needed the QR codes from the metal plaques placed near his existing 99 trolls. Not only that, they had to solve a riddle in troll language to get the final location. Collective efforts from curious troll-hunters worldwide ensued and Moon Mother’s location in Hedeland Nature Park, Fjordlandet was finally revealed.


Challenges in Building Giant Trolls

As in the case of Isak Heartstone, the way of the trolls is not always a smooth one. Dambo’s desire for sustainability can clash with the necessary encroachment on nature that building such structures entails.

 

He therefore tries to minimise his environmental footprint by building the most difficult parts (usually the heads and feet) in his Copenhagen workshop, to avoid unnecessary time disturbing the chosen site. His studio is built from recycled materials and located on a 55-acre farm, re-greened to offset the carbon emissions caused by flying all over the world to build sculptures.

 

Another challenge is the potential for the materials used to break down over time so that the sculptures are only ever temporary. However, this doesn’t faze Dambo, who believes that this is the way it should be. In fact, he regularly builds sculptures for festivals that take hundreds of hours of work, only to be removed after a few weeks or even days.

 

Such was the case with Helen and Matt, two trolls built for the Food Forever Festival in Kew Gardens, London, in 2022. Dambo’s hope is that the sight of these huge mystical beings will drive people to experience a sense of discovery and wonder that ignites a spark within them, meaning the magic has now been passed on and doesn’t need a permanent sculpture to prolong it.


Other Dambo Projects

While best known for his troll sculptures, Dambo has a number of other projects to raise awareness of the need to recycle and the opportunities that can arise from thinking of trash as a resource rather than something dirty or disgusting. After Danish music festivals, Dambo’s team turn the resulting trash into alternative festivals like Limbo Land.

 

He has also created “Happy Walls” all over the world, made from plywood and often used to brighten up the hoarding used at construction sites. These Happy Walls encourage people to write messages to interact with the world and in so doing, make art from otherwise discarded wood.

 

Knitting together Dambo’s multitude of works over the years, his mission is clear: to create a world that he wants to live in, full of life and imagination where people understand and appreciate the delights of nature and are committed to do their bit to protect it. His giant trolls, now social media stars in their own right, highlight the size of the opportunity for discovery in a world that needs a wake-up call.

Happy Wall, Copenhagen (2014).

photography by: jelm6/ Flickr