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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

He makes giant trolls out of trash, hides them in woods for people to find

By Cathy Free Washington Post

Thomas Dambo was rummaging through a city dump in Minnesota when he stumbled on perfection: large yellow plastic bins that had been tossed by a tool manufacturing company.

“They were perfect for the rabbit,” said Dambo, a Danish artist, who reached to request the rest of the company’s discarded bins.

Dambo gathered the trash and hauled in about 25 tons of scrap wood, then brought together 300 volunteers in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to make huge outdoor public art.

Working together, they built five enormous trolls and a looming golden rabbit that was accented with salvaged wiper-blade whiskers and motorcycle helmets for eyes. The supersize artworks – ranging in height from 16 to 42 feet – were then hidden in forested parks around the city.

“My ultimate goal is to have trolls surprising people in every state,” said Dambo, who has made a career out of building the mythical giants. He has placed 139 outsize trash trolls in 19 states across the U.S., from Washington to Maine, as well as in 20 countries.

He used five tons of scrap wood to build each troll in Minnesota and said he is eyeing another 12 million tons of recyclable scrap wood across the country.

“That’s enough material to build two and a half million trolls,” he said. “I’d love to show people how much beauty we can create from all that trash.”

In Detroit Lakes, a troll named Alexa holds a large wooden spoon over a recipe book and a cauldron, while a troll called Ronny Funny Face pokes his tongue out at anyone who stumbles across him in the woods. The tallest troll, Long Leif, towers 42 feet above the grass.

The creations have been drawing visitors from around the country since the exhibit opened June 10, said Amy Stearns, executive director of Project 412, a nonprofit community arts support group named after the 412 lakes that surround Detroit Lakes.

Volunteers also helped Dambo build 800 birdhouses to put around the city, she said.

“Our part of northwest Minnesota gets overlooked a lot,” said Stearns, noting that Detroit Lakes is about 3½ hours from Minneapolis. KSTP News recently reported on the massive art installations.

Project 412 used donations to hire Dambo and his crew after Stearns and others at the nonprofit learned about a troll the team had constructed in 2018 in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Most of Dambo’s trolls are permanent fixtures, although some travel in temporary exhibits, such as the Save the Humans trolls that were on display at the Philadelphia Zoo earlier this year with a message about caring for the environment.

Dambo’s troll project in Detroit Lakes is his largest so far, he said.

Dambo, 44, is a former rap musician and graffiti artist who pivoted to monster-size art in 2014. He said he’d built 250 birdhouses from scrap wood and put them all over Denmark, and he wondered if there was another way to use up trash and tell a story.

“My mother used to sing me a song about trolls, and there was a cassette tape we’d always rent at the library that told the legends of trolls in Denmark,” Dambo said. “Trolls play a big part in Scandinavian folklore.”

“I’d been wanting to make some big sculptures, and trolls seemed like the answer,” he said. “They came from my childhood, my part of the world.”

He debuted his first two trolls, Mr. Limbo and Mrs. Limbo, at a Danish music festival, and they were such a big hit that he continued. In 2016, he built Six Forgotten Giants around Copenhagen, followed by Troll Hunt in Chicago and the 7 Trolls and the Magical Tower in Belgium.

In 2021, Dambo and his wife, Alexa Piekarski, bought a farm near Copenhagen and set up a studio to plan and design projects.

Dambo said he and a crew of 26 now build heads for the trolls in the workshop, then ship them to be assembled with the rest of the sculptures on-site.

“We’re working on 12 (trolls) in the studio right now, and it takes about 750 hours to complete each one from beginning to end,” he said.

Dambo said he consults with the cities and organizations that hire him to find the best public locations where he can hide the trolls and elevate the surprise.

“It’s like hiding a giant in a haystack,” he said. “It seems special when you find something that big, and it’s also silly to hide something that big. I love the idea of people just stumbling upon it.”

Dambo posts photos of his creations on Instagram and Facebook, where he has more than 300,000 followers. He said he always incorporates stories and legends into each of his projects because he wants people to take away a message about caring for the Earth.

“My trolls are the voices of nature and the animals,” Dambo said. “In Detroit Lakes, the story is about a golden rabbit that comes into the city and casts a spell on humans, so they think they have to work all the time to get twice as much money to be twice as happy.”

Visitors begin their search for the golden rabbit in Detroit Lakes City Park at the Alexa troll named after Dambo’s wife.

“They can only find the golden rabbit if they solve the riddles provided by the trolls,” Dambo said.

He left clues in a book next to Alexa, and placed necklaces around each troll’s neck with further clues, which ultimately leads participants to the rabbit, he said.

“Collect this information and you can solve the riddle,” Dambo said, adding that it would probably take about 10 to 12 hours to visit all of the Detroit Lakes trolls in a single day.

People who are limited on time and don’t want to go through each step of solving the riddle can still see the five trolls by driving or hiking to them individually using directions provided by Project 412, he said.

He said he takes pride in knowing that his trolls are bringing smiles while also making use of throwaway materials from the local landfill.

“Inside your trash can is the possibility to change the world if you apply some creativity and some love,” Dambo said. “All trash is treasure.”