Embark on a treasure hunt to find Denmark's hidden trolls: why artist Thomas Dambo creates giant recycled sculptures

The Danish artist has assembled 11 works in the wilderness to encourage people to connect with nature

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Hiding in Denmark’s forests are giant trolls waiting to be discovered. The towering sculptures range between 15 and 20 feet, and are part of a treasure hunt devised by their creator Thomas Dambo, a self described “recycle art activist”.

Since 2014, the Danish artist and sculptor has been constructing colossal troll characters out of salvaged wood and recycled materials, with projects in the US, Puerto Rico, China and South Korea.

His latest one, The Great Troldefolkefest or The Great Troll Folk Fest, has 11 trolls, including one that he says is “extremely hidden” in his native country’s secluded green spaces and parks, for the curious to seek out. To help, Dambo has plotted out an online troll map with directions to his creations. He also shares clues on his social media, encouraging visitors to post their finds.

His treasure hunt project began over the summer, while Dambo was waiting out the pandemic in Copenhagen. Together with his team and some volunteers, he scouted out locations, obtained permissions for use of land and collected scrapwood. He unveiled the 10th troll on Instagram at the start of October.

The artist has given each troll a name and a distinctive appearance – some come with a mass of hair made of twigs, one has a nose ring, others flash toothy smiles. Drawing from his experience and imagination, he even invents backstories for the creatures.

Hans Hulehand, for instance, builds a children’s fortress. As Dambo’s story goes: “Once there was a little child who lived in the city with his parents, but he didn’t want to be in the stone house that humans have made. So every night, the child goes out into the forest where he has a friend, a big troll. Together, they build a fortress where the child can sleep at night.”

I think the biggest thread to mankind is that the new generation is living inside a digital world... but the modern world will not exist if the natural world ceases to exist

While he recognises the influence of Nordic mythology – which includes tales of trolls living in forests – Dambo says he is also weaving his own tales that fit into his environmentalism, the driving force behind his work.

“The trolls are characters that represent nature in a modern-day folklore that I’m writing. In the old days, we used magical creatures and fairy tales to explain phenomena that we couldn’t understand… I use my trolls to explain and talk about serious issues we have, which people might be bored of talking about.”

For Dambo, the trolls and their homes in lush forests or hilltops are there to remind us how vital nature is. “It’s important that people get challenged and explore the world that we’re living in. Too many of us spend time in front of our computers… If you’re disconnected from nature, then none of us will care to take care of the planet, because why would we take care of something that we don’t understand or we forget exists?

“I think the biggest threat to mankind is that the new generation is living inside a digital world. Some of them might think that the natural world has no importance because they never walk into it. But the modern world will not exist if the natural world ceases to exist.”

His reverence for nature is why Dambo uses recycled material in his work, to create from waste instead of adding more of it. One of his favourite sculptures, Isak Heartstone, was constructed by a hiking trail in Colorado, made by local volunteers who helped Dambo and his team dig through trash to gather wooden pallets and discarded lumber. The troll, whose name comes from a heart-shaped stone given to Dambo by three children from the town, became an instant attraction, though it was eventually moved by the US government to another location in the forest.

Danish artist Thomas Dambo
Danish artist Thomas Dambo

Dambo's knack for fashioning art out of what may otherwise end up in landfill sites started when he was a child. “I always liked to find things and turn them upside down and inside out, and make them into something else,” he says. Growing up, his home had a small workshop in the basement that his parents would let him use and where he learnt to build trinkets and toys. If he wanted something, he would rather build it than buy it.

“I would create something for my action figures. Maybe I needed a chimney for the fortress of my actions figures, so I’d go out into the neighbourhood and look into trash cans until I found something that was perfect,” he recalls.

Dambo went on to study at the Design School Kolding in Denmark and soon took on street art projects, such as assembling giant tree houses and birdhouse totems in urban spaces.

Among his earlier works is Ben Chiller, a recycled sculpture made for a music festival in Aarhus in 2015. Since then, his projects have become more grand and global, such as It Sounded Like a Mountain Fell for the Lanba Art Festival in Wulong, China, centred on trolls Marit and Kjeld whose homes in the mountains are at risk because of resource extraction and environmental destruction.

Dambo's previous treasure hunt, The Six Forgotten Giants, scattered sculptures across Copenhagen, from meadows to woodlands, and even on riverbanks under bridges.

Having completed at least 70 troll sculptures, his work continues to gain popularity, though Dambo still sees his practice through the perspective of environmental activism, one that requires others to take part, too. “I know that no matter how many sculptures I do for the rest of my life, I will never be able to recycle a tiny per cent of the mountains of trash that we are creating. The most important thing to remember when you think about what I’m doing, seeing it as a success or as something to admire… remember that in all the cities and countries of the world, there is enough trash for you to do the same as me,” he says.

"In some way, I have become like a trash celebrity. But there [can be] a million trash celebrities or trash rock stars."

More information on The Great Troll Folk Fest can be found on trollmap.com or thomasdambo.com