Danish Recycling Activist Thomas Dambo’s Surprising Forest Art

“Trash has value” is his mantra, and his method of delivering that message is epic.

My kids, charging through the forest at Chicago’s Morton Arboretum, skidded to a stop to take in a thirty-foot troll that had smashed a car with a boulder and threatened to hurl another. They found a second troll the length of a city bus sleeping in a wide field surrounded by orchards. Its mouth, capable of holding all three of them, was wide open.  A third troll hid in the bushes holding a rope, ready to pull a basket trap closed over whomever it lured close. Another section of the exhibit was an enormous troll habitat—our daughter walked into a cooking pot, one son hammered on a drum and our oldest, six at the time, crept into the dwelling with a growing understanding of the world’s possibilities. Their imaginations were on fire. And I was fascinated by what kind of life one would have to lead to conceive of and realize such a spectacular project.

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A giant wooden troll statue hugs a tree
One of the Giants of Mandurah in Australia. Photo: Duncan Wright

That was in 2018. When I started what would become a treasure hunt to discover more about the trolls’ creator and what drove him, I did not expect to find a six-foot-five Dane pedaling a flatbed tricycle and rapping about dumpster diving, but that’s who I found.

Thomas Dambo, who has a clear, refreshing vision of a world derived from trash, says he builds “large recycled projects that put the focus on issues we are facing in our world with overconsumption.” His goal is to send people out into nature, where the journey to discover his work becomes the best part of the experience.

A man in a winter coat stands in a forest
Thomas Dambo. Courtesy Thomas Dambo

Dambo is from Odense, Denmark, and grew up with ADHD, a lot of energy and the desire to play on a really big scale. He remembers his parents asking why everything he did had to be so wild and out of control, yet they understood him and sent him to what he calls “a little hippie school in the country,” where each grade had a wooden house they could scavenge supplies for and build onto in their spare time. One teacher named Mogens read the children fairy tales during their lunch breaks and put out trays for leftover food so nothing would go to waste. Mogens ate everything. Relished everything. And Mogens, and the little hippie school, offered expansiveness, opposed to restriction, and planted the seeds of storytelling, sustainability and the value of exploring in Dambo.

“A school like that teaches the kids that they control their destiny,” he told Observer. “We’ve all performed well because we haven’t been afraid of anything.”

It’s a mentality that served him as well in the city as it did in the country. He explored abandoned factories and building lots just “for the fairytale and adventure of it.” That wasn’t where inspiration came from, however. Having ADHD is something Dambo has come to see as a blessing. In his teen years, he started to understand he didn’t need to get inspiration anywhere. “It just flows out.”

In 1991, a friend’s older brother returned from a trip to New York City with a rap album—the first Dambo had ever heard. He wasn’t a great reader, but rap came easy to him, and the speed, energy and his mind’s ability to make connections with language all felt magnetic.

Hip-hop culture also suited him, so he started a rap band with his brother and friends. Imagine a gangly, polite and very white teen dressed like 50 Cent; it sounds like a recipe for secondary school drama, but it led to Dambo performing in hundreds of shows all over Denmark. Rap gave him confidence and helped him go from being nervous about being called on in class to someone who could walk onto a stage and captivate a crowd. It also gave him the idea he might be able to make a living from his imagination.

He dabbled in everything: beatboxing, graffiti, rap, art, YouTube videos, creating album covers and even stenography. However, this left him feeling spread too thin and like he was not good at anything. Still, he devoted himself to becoming a recycling artist, which meant trying to point out society’s overconsumption while getting by with such low overhead that he could spend all his time being creative as opposed to getting a job to pay for rent. The question was, how far was he willing to go?

The answer was ‘pretty far’. At twenty-four, when a fellow graffiti artist told him he could easily get into the prestigious Kolding Design School, he decided to apply and was immediately accepted. Once there, he doubled down on devoting all his time to art and found places in the school buildings to sleep. When he found a large storage room in a basement across the street, he built a wall in a corner nook with an external padlock he could unhook from the inside with a wingnut and slept there.

His years at the design school helped Dambo clarify his purpose. He was, he thought, the best at recycling work in the country considered the best in the world at recycling, but he needed a way to tie that into his work and into his larger message to society.

A child looks at a giant wooden troll statue
Ivan Evigvår in Copenhagen, Denmark. Hasselblad H5D

Welcome to the Madness

In Denmark, people go to music festivals by train instead of car camping like in The U.S. Up to 125,000 people pack tents, suitcases and supplies for a week. Once there, they get drunk, fall in the mud and, with titanic hangovers, Dambo said, “they say fuck it and leave the sins of their past behind.” They ditch mountains of cheap tents, suitcases, clothes, cans of tuna, unopened beers, boxes of wine, bottles of liquor and sundry gear and go back to their clean apartments to order post-festival takeout. The debris left behind is a huge problem.

To raise awareness of the problems caused by Danish music festivals, Dambo leads teams of people out on the last day to scavenge through the trash, and they work fourteen-hour days to turn that trash into another festival in swanky parts of the city. At one, people could make jewelry from trash or print on found shirts. Another required people to wear brightly colored clothes he scavenged, then walk through a door into what he called Limbo Land, which was like a nightclub made out of trash, onto a catwalk. “You walked in as the entertainment when you entered and didn’t know what you were entering,” he explained. “An announcer was sitting on a tennis umpire’s chair with a microphone and being like, ‘Hey, welcome, you beautiful boy who just came in with the orange skirt and the umbrella hat and no shirt on. We can’t wait to see you do the limbo dance.’ It was so funny to see people’s reactions on their faces when they just entered into the madness of this place.” Thousands and thousands of people came to those events, drawn by the tactile experiences he created.

By his late 20s, having put in so much time shapeshifting with his interests, Dambo had amassed so many skills that he felt like he could do anything. In every trash bin he saw or construction site he passed, were materials that gave him crazy new ideas.

He’d pedal his three-wheel tricycle with its flatbed trailer through the city, looking for trash. It’s easy to imagine the odd looks he would have received while going through dumpsters, and the negativity, but none of that bothered him. He was proud of dumpster diving. He strongly felt the world needed heroes who weren’t afraid of trash.

“If I could be the trash recycling superstar—someone people looked up to who had created success using trash—that would be the best marketing tool to remove the shame of trash because disgust is one of the biggest reasons why we have so much,” Dambo said. “So I wasn’t ashamed. I was proud.”

Here again, was the impact of Mogens eating everything, wasting nothing.

In Dambo’s first workshop (where he worked alone, part-time, without heat), he loaded up all the interesting trash he could find and developed an ingenious organization system for, and from, found materials. His workspace looked as well-stocked and set up as any big-box hardware store. One small cubby he made had stacks of microwave dinner plates. His 78-year-old grandmother saved them for a year. “She eats like this now because it is easier. Three hundred thousand people eat like this in this city alone.”

The scale of single-serve plastic is staggering, but to Dambo, each was a perfect paint tray. We have to teach people that what’s disgusting is throwing things away, Dambo said. People are afraid because it’s dirty, but what we need to do is teach them it’s disgusting to throw so much away.

After another festival, Dambo found heaps of plywood and made 250 birdhouses, which he hung around Copenhagen. Graffiti had to be done at night in the shadow of society, but no one chased you off for hanging birdhouses. Even one so large he could fit inside of it. So he kept making birdhouses and started holding workshops for kids and concert groups, making over 4,000 birdhouses, looms out of trash and wild art with every colorful scrap of waste they could gather. He derives energy from other people, and early on in his art, perhaps because of the scale of it or the quantity he produces, he found he needed other people.

“All of my art is about giving people a positive experience with recycling,” he said. It works because Dambo is fun, and charismatic, and easily gets people involved in his work. During interviews, instead of saying, “I,” he says, ‘we,’ ‘the team,’ ‘the volunteers,’ ‘sponsors,’ and ‘partners,’ so it makes sense people are happy to help build whatever insane thing he wants to conjure.

A giant wooden troll statue rests an arm on a car
Joen And The Giant Beetle in Wynwood, Miami. Courtesy Thomas Dambo

Those creations tend to be whimsical. He turned plastic strips into a huge swan. After a festival, when the beer trucks disposed of miles worth of tubing, he made them into chandeliers for a local coffee shop. He made a three-meter-tall pink pony out of scrap wood and put it in public for display.

Everywhere he goes, Dambo thinks about what other large 3D objects he can make and what else trash can be. He knows trash has value, is not going anywhere and that when our resources are gone, we’ll have to go back and reuse what we’ve discarded. He wants to show the world what’s possible.

He built a large-scale art installation in a botanical garden in Mexico City that he calls The Future Forest, where over a thousand volunteers turned three tons of plastic waste into a vivid forest with thousands of colorful plastic trees, flowers and animals.

Dambo might start waste deep into an ocean of used plastic containers that looks like the scenes from Pixar’s Wall-E, where the entire world is trashed over. But his final product is a celebration of the people who work collecting our trash, those at the bottom of the income scale and the social pyramid.

“I believe this is one of the main reasons our planet is completely covered in waste,” he said. “Because people don’t see where their trash goes and don’t know the people who deal with it.”

A giant wooden troll statue sits on rocks holding a lantern
Hector el Protector 2.0 in Culebra, Puerto Rico. Courtesy Thomas Dambo

Is it big and crazy enough? 

On any of his slow bike routes around town, Dambo’s mind wanders over what each piece of trash could become. He created a city block-long hand wall from old plywood he calls a Happy Wall. Essentially, it’s an open-source billboard: spin one block, and the color changes. Spin enough, and you can write words or designs. People write, “Will you marry me?” “Legalize It!” and advertisements for local restaurants. Each message lasts minutes or hours or until someone else comes to play. The Happy Wall led to Dambo receiving a call from a serious-sounding diplomat asking if he was the artist who created the street-long anti-Putin work in the middle of the city.

The right answer is probably ‘sort of.’ Dambo’s work has kinetic potential long after he walks away from it. This will carry through all his art; it comes alive once he leaves it behind.

In 2014, he was invited to a music festival in Puerto Rico to do a giant art installation. Along the way, he heard stories of how during WWII, the US Navy used the waters around Culebra as a bomb testing ground. Dambo used piles of old pallets he found to build a gargantuan bald troll with a huge round belly, scrap wood fur and a scraggly beard. The troll sat on a rock outcropping, hurling stones out to sea.

The island’s people fell in love with the sculpture, Hector el Protector, which became a beloved landmark. When Hurricane Maria destroyed Hector and much of the island, Dambo ran a GoFundMe campaign to return and rebuild him. Upon returning to the island, he found a trash can and converted it into a lantern for Hector 2.0 to hold up like a beacon, or, as he says, “a light to shine the way into a brighter future, out of the darkness of the storm.”

When school kids came to help, he had them create a giant necklace. He tasked them to go out and gather whatever they considered pearls. What they found was strung together, and each child could feel a little ownership of Hector Protector. When the project was complete, they gathered around Dambo and sang him a song. There’s a drone video clip of him and his giant troll and the kids, and the overhead shot of Hector perched on a spit of rocks in the water is a gorgeous sight. It’s no wonder he decides to keep building more trolls.

A giant wooden troll statue fishes in a pond
Runde Rie in Roskilde, Denmark. Hasselblad H5D

A project is born

Dambo realized he could spread his recycling activist message by creating a fairytale about trolls that sprawled around the globe. Materials are never an issue. “I can show up anywhere and go one hundred feet and find what I need,” he said.

He begins building more trolls, naming each of them and writing a story that sounds like folklore rap. One sits by a lakeshore with a fallen tree and mooring rope for a giant fishing pole that doubles as a rope swing. Another has wings the size of NBA power forwards and tries to fly. The trolls lounge, lurk, invite, menace, provoke and protect. They seem to change in mood depending on the time of day and somehow become complete (and completely different) when people interact with them.

To Dambo, the trolls represent the thoughts of nature. They are good and bad at the same time—a response to the world. If you are good to nature and trolls, they are good to you. If not, watch out.

At a Halloween festival in Miami, where seating is hard to find, he builds a doorway into the body of a troll, inside which people can get away, have a rest and “maybe make out a little bit.” Another troll in Jacksonville bursts forth from the earth, perhaps to snatch people and gobble them up.

The trolls are captivating, and groups around the world start commissioning Dambo to create new ones. They attract a lot of attention and bring in foot traffic, which businesses like. In return, businesses or sponsors can share Dambo’s green message.

How to travel with troll heads

A troll’s head takes the longest to build—up to two weeks—and building them on-site means more time paying for hotels and per diem, which becomes unsustainable. But the face and eyes are the most essential parts of the sculpture and can’t be rushed, so Dambo builds them in his studio. Figuring out how to travel with these large-scale sculptures took time. Early on, he had no expert on import/export or permits on his team, which left him flying by the seat of his pants, which was nerve-wracking.

He’s had plenty of help, though, from people who are excited to be part of the trolls’ journeys, and it “felt good that people were watching out for them. I have faith that they end up where they need to go.”

Once Dambo and the head arrive at their destination, he goes exploring to find the rest of the materials.

“My favorite thing about building a sculpture is going on a treasure hunt for recycled wood,” he said. “This takes me to all the dark corners of the world, where I find beautiful places I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.”

In Breckenridge, Colorado, he was hired to build a troll along a local trail. So many people visited it year-round that there were complaints about traffic near the trailhead and fears people would fall on the wintertime ice. People climbing on it became a contentious issue, and the troll was eventually chainsawed and taken away in the middle of the night, leading to a media frenzy that reached Dambo in Copenhagen.

In the aftermath, the town invited Dambo back to build another troll, which he did, and residents asked him point blank if he was okay with people climbing on his work. He told them that as a kid, he climbed as high as he wanted in the trees and never got hurt. It was how “we learned to keep our balance in this world.” Also, “In Denmark, we don’t have a culture of liability and suing each other. I like art to be accessible to the public. When people interact with it, they are part of the creation of it. Only by doing that does the sculpture become what it is: ever-changing.”

Photos on Dambo’s Instagram account show kids balancing on a troll arm laid over a stream as a bridge or swinging from a tire held by an extended troll arm or—one of my favorites—my children scrambling out of one’s gaping mouth. The weather eventually changes the color and texture of the wood. Beetles and carpenter bees bore into it. All that makes the work more alive, he believes. He knows his statues may last four days for a festival, four months or four years. He uses harder woods where the bases touch the ground to prolong their life, but these are recycled materials and he uses screws and not nails so they can be taken apart and recycled once again. They demonstrate that a simple industrial pallet can become something more.

A giant troll statue pulls a boat through tall grass
Kaptajn Nalle in Copenhagen, Denmark. Hasselblad H5D

With each troll, Dambo’s mission gets tighter

Building the trolls has been a learning experience—one that’s become something of a philosophy, complete with maxims.

First, “Jam it, don’t plan it.” He can’t predict the weather or whether volunteers will show up, and he doesn’t want to stifle creativity. On-the-spot jamming makes it inspiring and fun.

Second, “Make stupid perfect.” If you put a lot of energy into something you feel is stupid, you are on a path to being very successful because most people only follow paths and ideas already there.

Third, “Start with the material, not the design.” When traveling this way, he has figured out you can build anything from anything. There is a creative force found in scouring over every corner where we kick our refuse. “I don’t go to any place in the world and know what trash I’ll find, but I know I’ll find trash and get the best out of it.” In Kentucky, he used bourbon barrels and part of a Louisville slugger. In Wulong, China, he gave a troll a braided ponytail made from locally sourced bamboo. In Denmark, a troll holds a spectacular dream catcher that has boiled porpoise bones and seagull feathers weaved in.

Fourth, “Remember, now is the good old days.” That means now is the time to get started.

Fifth, “Everyone can do it; just push them a bit.” For one troll, he built a 400-foot tail to get volunteers involved in the workshop concept. He couldn’t have them all on a scaffold, but a tail requires a lot of collaboration, and the end product provides lots of room to sit. And seating is important, as when he builds a troll, many people want to rest on it.

Momentum on pause

Dambo never stumbles over his words despite using multiple languages. When fielding questions, he smiles when he talks and has the ease, comfort, warm humor and verbal velocity of a master orator trained on stage and street. He often drops potent insights gained from a life lived outside the mainstream. His talents are legion, but creating connections seems to be his transcendent gift. He connects with volunteers who help him build enormous and outlandish installations. He connects people with the joy of being outdoors by setting them on troll hunts. And anyone who experiences his art feels a deeper connection and sense of their responsibility to the world.

First, Dambo had a system, a message and momentum. Then he had a crew of devoted staff making his work easier and extending its reach. By May of 2019, he had built fifty-one trolls, and in 2020, made stops at Burning Man and the Olympics, and was fully booked on a global tour. He was about to take his work to the next level, but while in Puerto Rico, Dambo was told he had to pause due to Covid-19. He had to go home. To quarantine. To send his employees home with Coronavirus tests.

He’s a kinetic force, ground to a halt.

One surprising effect of the pandemic was that the world went on an online shopping spree. The spike in demand put an enormous strain on supply chains, and as pallets are what moves the world’s goods, there was increasing demand for pallets. One YouTube video shows enormous robotic arms producing multiple pallets per minute with an efficiency that is its own kind of creative genius. But watching, I remember Dambo saying he could drive down any interstate and find mountains of old and rotting pallets behind all the factories because we are geniuses at producing new materials but disasters at reusing them.

To pull himself out of his funk, Dambo does what he always does: gets on his tricycle and goes to work. He finds trash, thinks big and sees who is willing to help. He builds a giant troll dragging a real motorboat by a mooring line across a field in Denmark.

I asked him if he was ever overwhelmed by seeing so much trash.

He took a minute, then said, “I can’t solve the problem… But you shouldn’t give up on trying to do good because you can’t save the world, right? I just try to focus on the here and now and not to think too much about the long term, because that makes you sick.” He believes it’s okay to think about doing good in the moment instead of always thinking of the future. “History shows us that we can rise up and change. And it’s not the individual, it’s the movement. I want to be part of the movement.”

Tallying numbers from gate sales in the U.S., then projecting out, Dambo’s team believes more than 10 million people have stood in front of one of Dambo’s sculptures.

“I like to think that that can have an impact on all those children,” he said. “I’ve seen many children who made recycled cardboard troll costumes because they get inspired by that. And so I hope I can, in some way, inspire some people to do some more stuff like that and build the movement in that way.”

People work on building a giant wooden troll statue
Building the Månemor troll in Denmark. Courtesy Thomas Dambo

Post-Covid, Dambo relaunched his global troll project. Then, after more than seven years in the workshop where he’d worked on countless projects with his team, the government needed to demolish the building to make a new highway tunnel. He had to start over once again.

Not one to think small, Dambo bought a 55-acre farm, where he could live with family and friends and build a new troll workshop. They regreened the space to offset the carbon emissions caused by flying all over the world to build sculptures. The farm will become a creative center and artist community built from recycled material. The new workshop is sided with over 200 meters of disposed-of street signs that have been cut up and layered in an intricate patterning he calls dragon shingles. The connected silo was converted into an office he calls the wizard’s tower. It will become the launching point for his future projects, and as he does not slow down or dwell long on setbacks, there will be many future projects.

I tried to contact Dambo again in late 2022, but his team told me he was on the road and very busy. We first connected on an early morning before he boarded a flight in Seattle, then a second time very late at night in an Atlanta hotel room, and finally again in mid-March on his farm in Copenhagen.

“Next week gets busy,” he tells me.

I can’t imagine. But he can. Jet lag is harder to deal with now that he’s getting older. There are emails, meetings and everyone wants a media hit when he travels. It is harder to go out into the shed and just build something alone. All that “other stuff” proves that he has become the recycling superstar he always wanted to be. From time to time, imposter syndrome creeps in, but Dambo, who built trolls in -10 degree weather in Korea, who waited out so many dark nights in the unlit basement, who spent so long consumed by and acting upon his endless wild ideas, uses that feeling to evolve, reinvigorate and not stand still.

He just opened an exhibit in Atlanta and finished a scouting trip to build ten trolls over thirteen weeks in six states, starting in New Jersey and ending in Seattle. In early 2023, he received an anonymous donation of $150,000 to build his 100th troll anywhere he wanted. A game master and treasure hunt lover to his core, he hid it in a “super secret location” and asked online followers where it should go. Followers suggested a little cove in Greece, a short hike up a goat trail off I-70 leading into the Rocky Mountains, a low area in a Bangladesh pasture and an orchard outside of Benghazi. My kids wanted a troll smashing a car—in our driveway. They could see it. Big things seem possible to them now. Dambo is right; people want to be part of this large, exciting thing because they can see the possibilities, too.

But Dambo did not simply reveal the location. He had ninety-nine plaques made, and each has a code on it. The plaques were posted on or at the site of his first ninety-nine trolls. Gather all the codes, type them into the extravagant troll map on his website, and only then could you find the 100th troll.

On his website, there’s a video of Dambo in China. He looks tired. His busy schedule, and the bleakness of what is behind him, seem to weigh on him. He stands facing the camera with neat green rows of low plants in the field to his left. To his right, taking up the rest of the screen, is a heaping field of trash. He points to his left and says, “This is the old world.” Then he points to his right and adds, “This is the new world. And the new world is slowly taking over the old one, and in the end, all of it will look like this.” He gestures like the trash is a wave about to crest on the plants beyond.

It’s a fatalistic thought—one that might cause someone else to shrug their shoulders and say the problem is too big, the scale immeasurable, the scope of the fix beyond all humanity, let alone one person. Yet Dambo, despite having this sobering and unique view of the world, exudes joy, builds community and continues to share his message of creative conservation. That line between nature and encroachment on nature is where he has decided to spend his life. In the last nine years, he’s built 100 giant trolls in seventeen countries using 14,000 pallets and 250 tons of scrap wood, with the help of 1,500 volunteers over 75,000 working hours. In those moments where my lesser self would wonder how to possibly keep going, Thomas Dambo builds monuments calling on us to be our better selves.

And those monuments are out there now, but you have to find them.

Danish Recycling Activist Thomas Dambo’s Surprising Forest Art