Thomas Dambo: The Danish recycle artist bringing his giant wooden trolls to Perth, Australia


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May 31, 2023

Thomas Dambo: The Danish recycle artist bringing his giant wooden trolls to Perth, Australia

This was published 7 months ago If you go down in the woods today … you may well

This was published 7 months ago

If you go down in the woods today … you may well find giant wooden trolls. Created by Danish recycle artist Thomas Dambo, these huge sculptures are being built deep in the Western Australian bush.

By Barry Divola

One of Thomas Dambo's sculptures in Mandurah, south of Perth. Credit: Tony McDonough

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O nce upon a lunchtime, when he was a primary school kid in Denmark, Thomas Dambo climbed onto a window frame in a classroom and just sat there. A teacher on playground duty saw him and got angry. Dambo couldn't understand why. He was simply looking at the world from a higher vantage point and daydreaming. Was that wrong?

He was punished by being made to sit, hidden away from everyone, in a hutch underneath the teacher's desk at the front of the room for the next class. "I told my mother when I got home and she said, ‘That's it. I’m pulling you out of that school,’ " he says.

"They sent me to a school in the countryside where there were only 50 or 60 kids. They didn't count off the minutes in a day like at a regular school. If the weather was good, we’d just go out and play.

"There was an old train carriage where this hippie teacher lived. He’d had hard times and drank too much, but he would teach us kids to build things, so he had value and a purpose. Each class had a little house of its own and we could add things to it with tools and wood. I really think that experience shaped me. A lot of what I do now comes from that time."

Dambo at work on one of his giant trolls.Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Dambo

Dambo is 42 and stands 196 centimetres tall in his sneakers. He looks like a cross between early-1960s TV beatnik Maynard G. Krebs and a middle-aged former slacker/skater – rangy-framed and Van Dyke-bearded, with close-cropped brown hair, he's wearing a grey striped jumper and baggy khaki cargo pants. This gangly Dane is considered one of the world's most inventive recycle artists, his work found in the wilds of Puerto Rico, China, South Korea, Belgium, England and the US.

We’re having breakfast on a clear, cold June day in Mandurah, about an hour's drive south of Perth, sitting in a cafe overlooking the water on the town's eastern foreshore. Dambo came here from his home in Copenhagen for one reason – to build giant wooden trolls, then hide them around the area for people to find. The daydream has become a reality.

The best way to neutralise something that can be used against you is by owning it. That's why he named himself Dambo. His real surname is Winter, but when his childhood behaviour was diagnosed as DAMP (deficits in attention, motor control and perception abilities), he adapted the acronym and gave it a twist to create a nickname.

His mother Marit came from a middle-class Danish family, his father Kjeld from a poor farming community. His father became a hippie, living on a collective farm where everything was shared. One day, Marit saw a pamphlet for the farm, and it included a photo of Kjeld. "She thought, ‘Oh, I like the look of him,’ so she went over and hijacked him," says Dambo, laughing.

Marit became a kindergarten teacher, Kjeld a factory metalworker, raising Dambo and his younger brother Morten in Odense, Denmark's third-largest city. "I don't know if you’d say we were poor, but I do know we never had much money," says Dambo. "I remember that whenever I was sick, my father couldn't afford to take a day off work, so I would sit in the car outside the factory."

When Kjeld was laid off from his metalworking job, he made do by scavenging old bicycles, repairing them and selling them via the online marketplace Craigslist. The business grew and he opened a shop. "He got a lot of clientele from bigger bicycle shops because he was seen as a fair and nice guy."

Dambo has been collecting materials to recycle into his art since primary school.Credit: @thomasdambo/Instagram

As Dambo watched his father, more seeds were sown – the value of recycling and repurposing discarded objects. He recalls his class having to raise money for school camps by getting unwanted goods from homes in their area and selling them at a market.

"Many years later, at a school reunion, I met one of my teachers again," says Dambo. "He told me that he remembered I was really on fire when we would collect all these old objects. He remembered this day when I was in fifth grade and these people had called the school to say they had a cabinet they didn't need any more. I walked over there by myself with a shopping cart and carried this cabinet down from an attic and rolled it all the way back to school on the shopping cart." He smiles. Takes a sip of his breakfast smoothie. "That story is very me."

Today, Dambo loves nothing more than riding around on his bike with a cart attached to it, dumpster-diving and saving scrap wood and cast-offs from landfill in order to use them in his sculptures and artworks.

But before all this, he was part of the Danish skateboard, graffiti and hip-hop communities. He beatboxed in a number of groups, including Fler Farver ("Multiple Colours") and Enelsk ("One Love"), and at one point was part of a 150-concert tour of Norway with a team of DJs, rappers and graffiti artists who would perform up to three shows a day in schools.

It was while hanging out in Copenhagen's street-art scene in his 20s that he got an idea – and that idea was birdhouses. "When graffiti started to expand into stencils and posters and stickers, I thought it was my chance to do something different," he says. "My grandparents always had birdhouses and birdbaths in their garden and we would sit and look at the birds whenever I visited. So I decided to build birdhouses and paint them and put them up everywhere.

For the past 15 years, Dambo has been using scrap wood to build "unauthorised" birdhouses, which he puts in trees and outside buildings. He estimates there are now more than 3500 in Denmark, Germany and beyond. Credit: @thomasdambo/Instagram

"I understand why some people don't like graffiti, or don't appreciate it or understand it. People call the police and people get fined or go to jail. That happened to a lot of friends. My birdhouses were like graffiti, because they were unauthorised, but people are happy when they see birdhouses and they don't tend to complain about them. I felt like I was hacking the system."

Fifteen years later, he continues to make birdhouses of various shapes and sizes. Dambo calls this ongoing project Happy City Birds, making them from recycled scrap wood and using paint from Danish company Dyrup, which donates paint it can't use because of incorrect toning. He has constructed so many that he stopped numbering them after 1000; that was some years ago. He estimates there are more than 3500 out there, in trees, outside buildings and in city streets from Copenhagen to Berlin and beyond.

"My birdhouses were like graffiti, because they were unauthorised, but people are happy when they see birdhouses and they don't tend to complain about them. I felt like I was hacking the system."

At Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2012, he enlisted volunteers to help him construct 640 birdhouses, each decorated with a wooden heart. At the end of the festival he gave them away to festival-goers, encouraging them to post pictures on social media of where each birdhouse ended up across Denmark.

A little more than a decade ago, when he was attending a Danish festival called Smukfest as part of a graffiti team, he started thinking bigger. He was drinking beers with one of the other artists, who was complaining that girls never seemed to want to hang out with them, "and I said, ‘Well, we’re not super social, we mainly sit around, painting and smoking joints.’ "

And that's when he got the idea to build a gigantic pink pony. "I was probably high because, I mean, ‘What do girls like?’ " he says, adopting a dumb voice. "‘I know! Ponies! And the colour pink!’ I know it sounds ridiculous. But I did it. I built a five-metre-high pink pony out of recycled wood, with a staircase up one leg and a place where we could sleep in the belly. That became my first big sculpture and it taught me that I knew the physics of building something big."

Dambo built his first big sculpture, a five-metre-tall "pony", a decade ago in a quest to attract girls.Credit: @thomasdambo/Instagram

Did it attract girls? "I actually met my wife because of it," he says, shrugging and offering a sheepish smile. "So it worked. Well, now she's my ex-wife."

The marriage didn't last, but the desire to build big things did. Dambo noticed that discarded wooden pallets and scrap wood were always piling up in dumpsters and other places around Copenhagen. He decided to do something with it all. He wanted to make trolls. Big trolls.

His fascination with these mythical creatures stemmed from the Nordic mythology he learnt about as a child, when he would search for pictures of them and borrow cassettes from the library that told their stories.

Inspired by the work of an Italian street artist named Blu, he built his first troll on the Danish island of Mors in 2014. He named the troll Jack Lumber. It sat with its legs sticking out, gleefully gobbling a tree branch with a wide-open mouth. Soon after, he had a vision: to build a giant troll in each of Denmark's 98 municipalities.

He hasn't got there yet for the simple reason that he keeps getting commissions from around the world. "And now here I am sitting in WA, building six more," he says. "By next year I will have built my 100th troll."

"Thomas's giants are protectors of the environment and that resonates with us. Our town exists because of its love for the natural environment."

The Mandurah giants have been in the works since late 2019, when Dambo first visited to scout locations. Then the pandemic hit and put everything on hold, along with projects he had planned for the Tokyo Olympics and the Burning Man festival in the US.

"There were many, many moments when we thought this project would fall over," says Rhys Williams, the 34-year-old mayor of Mandurah. "But it felt so right and appropriate for Mandurah. Thomas's giants are protectors of the environment and that resonates with us. Our town exists because of its love for the natural environment. Our wetlands are a resting place for birds migrating from Alaska, and in the ’90s a series of protests protected those wetlands from development. That's ingrained in the history of Mandurah."

The projections for the town are that 150,000 people will visit the giants within the first year and the project will inject $6 million into the economy, "but for us it's about more than that, because there's a longer-term value in showcasing Mandurah to people who have never been here before or haven't visited for many years."

After Dambo and I finish breakfast, we leave the cafe and drive south for about 10 minutes to an area that's part of the 150 hectares the City of Mandurah has bought back in a long-term acquisition strategy to protect natural bushland. There we meet up with representatives from the town's environmental management office and from FORM Building a State of Creativity Inc, the WA non-profit arts organisation that initiated and is producing the Mandurah giants.

Dambo is looking for the perfect site for his sixth troll. After leaving the car, he's off, taking long strides into the bush and craning his neck left and right. When I catch up with him, he's standing in a clearing and holding something in his hand. It's a kangaroo skull.

"I like the way the sun comes through here and communicates with these white stones," he says. "The troll I’m building for this site is talking to the ground, so I need there to be stones. He's about five metres long, like an SUV with a head, and he's crawling."

When I ask if he has detailed specifications for the troll, he explains that he builds like an artist rather than an engineer. "When you’re building something like this into an existing landscape, you can't do it in an exact, perfect way. It needs to look organic, as if it's always been there. If you sit down on a rock or lean on a couch, your body moves into it. If you design something on a flat workshop floor, it's going to look stiff and not so real.

"It all goes back to that day I decided to make that five-metre-tall pink pony. It's about daring to do something that mightn't be logical, or something you’ve never done before. That's my philosophy."

Each troll's body is constructed on-site using the wood of old pallets from a Perth brewery. Credit: Tony McDonough

There will be six Mandurah giants – five scattered around the town and one in a park in the Perth suburb of Subiaco – but don't ask exactly where they are. For Dambo, it's about the journey as much as the destination. "I don't want people to just drive up, see the sculpture and move on to the next one. I want them to get out of their cars and walk into the bush to look for them. That's really important to me. I have to think about the route people take to see them because I want them to explore a little bit and see the topography and landscape of the area. I want them to be in nature."

"I don't want people to just drive up, see the sculpture and move on to the next one. I want them to get out of their cars and walk into the bush to look for them."

Each troll takes between 500 and 1000 hours to make. Dambo builds the heads and feet from discarded furniture in his studio in Copenhagen, while the bodies are constructed on-site using old pallets from a Perth brewery. There are eight people on the building team – six from Denmark and two from Australia – and he's using another 50-odd local volunteers to help with construction. It takes a village to make a giant.

With its vast landscapes, natural beauty and Wild West attitude, Western Australia is an apt place for these giants to live. There are echoes of the 2003 Perth International Arts Festival project by British Turner Prize-winning sculptor Antony Gormley, who was commissioned for the festival's 50th birthday to create 51 alien-like steel sculptures, based on locals who posed nude for him, and place them in the landscape at remote Lake Ballard, 200 kilometres north of Kalgoorlie.

When I return to Mandurah in late September, one giant is already completed and two are well on the way. It turns out Dambo is not just making big things. In August his second wife, Alexa Piekarski, gave birth to twin boys. You get the feeling Dambo is as excited by the giants as he is about the babies.

The finished giant is the one for which Dambo was scouting locations a few months earlier. It is indeed as big as an SUV, and crouches on the ground on all fours, scrounging the earth with huge hands, complete with imitation fingernails.

A short drive away reveals a half-finished giant half-hidden in bushland, sitting spread-eagled next to a huge fallen tree and a pool of water that has formed in the hole where the tree once stood. It has a big-toothed smile like the Luna Park face and clutches a tree trunk with one hand.

The sculptures are designed to look as though they’ve been there forever, and will eventually break down and return to nature.Credit: Tony McDonough

Both giants look like they’ve been there forever. And that's the point. Dambo wants people to come across these mythical-looking creatures and experience a sense of discovery and wonder.

The secrecy of the locations is part of the game. Visitors to the exhibition, which opens November 12, will be given a map with vague directions to the sites, but then they’re on their own. And the search will begin. Each giant will have a symbol attached to it that can be drawn or photographed. When you’ve collected five symbols, you bring them back to Mandurah Visitors’ Centre and use those symbols in a code-breaker totem. This will reveal the location of the sixth secret giant.

Dambo has also written a poem that is inscribed in a slab of wood at the visitors’ centre. It's about the six hidden giants representing parts of the water cycle in Mandurah. They used to sing together in harmony, but now one is lost. It's up to visitors to find all the giants and help restore order and balance to the world.

As Dambo explains all this – his eyes wide, his hands in constant movement – it's hard not to envisage that boy in school, climbing up onto the window frame and looking out at the world beyond the playground, dreaming of bigger things.

"We create mountains and mountains of trash. So, as I am a recycle artist, why should I build sculptures that last forever?"

But unlike Puff the Magic Dragon, trolls don't live forever. They’re not made of marble or bronze, like statues of the ancient world that have survived centuries. They’re made of wood and they live in the natural world, not a museum. They will eventually rot and decay and be taken over by the bush. Not next year, maybe not in five years, but eventually. Back in June, I asked Dambo how he felt about that.

"I don't have a problem with that at all," he said, shaking his head as we drove back to the town centre from site-hunting. "The world has a problem in that it has an obsession with owning things and wanting them to last forever. This car we’re sitting in won't be able to be used in 10 or 15 years, but it will still be here for years and years, even though it has no use.

"We create mountains and mountains of trash. So, as I am a recycle artist, why should I build sculptures that last forever? Who am I to say that people in the future should still look at some art I made back in 2022? I hope the future will have new artists doing new work with relevant things to say about their times."

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