“I’ve spent my life going off the beaten path—literally. I was always the kid crawling into the bushes, jumping over fences, and digging through the trash. These days, I’m considered the world’s leading recycle artist, after spending the past nine years making giant troll sculptures that have drawn millions of people away from their screens and out into the incredible natural world that surrounds us.”
– Thomas Dambo, 2023
I first became aware of the Danish artist/activist, Thomas Dambo in June of 2023 when strange photographs of large trolls began to appear on my Instagram feed. I started following the “Way of the Bird King Tour” across America, watching as Thomas and his team of twenty-two dedicated builders and volunteers gifted America with ten glorious trolls – amazing structures themselves and a monument to ingenious recycling.
Birth of The Bird King
Dambo was born in Odense, Denmark in 1979 to self-declared “parents of hippies.” His mother, a seamstress, designed theater costumes. His dad was a blacksmith and sometimes repaired bicycles in his shop. Dambo always had an artistic flare—he was a beatbox rapper for a time and a street graffiti artist. He studied at Denmark’s Design School Kolding and obtained his Masters Degree in Interactive Design.
It was while attending school he began making birdhouses out of recycled wood. He named his project “Happy City” and has continued to make over 3,000 birdhouses. This is how Dambo became the self-proclaimed “Bird King.” Dambo has always believed “trash is treasure” and the birdhouses were just the start of that very idea.
The Legend of the Trolls
Trolls have a long history in Danish lore. The Danish symbolism can be traced back as far as the Vikings. Trolls are known to come out at night and cause mischief, then turn to stone in the daylight. Trolls are also heavily tied to the protection of nature and our environment. Dambo began “hiding” trolls in his native Denmark in 2014—he has placed thirty in Denmark alone.
Hector the Protector
In 2014, Dambo built Hector the Protector on Culebra Island in Puerto Rico. Hector was throwing rocks at anyone who wished harm on the island. Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria did not respect the troll’s power. In 2019, Dambo raised the necessary funds to return to Puerto Rico and restore Hector. Dambo says, “Hector has learned from his violent ways and has now chosen another method of keeping the island safe.” He now holds out a lantern—to show future storms the beauty of the island so they decide not to strike here. This is pure Dambo, for every troll there is a story, a legend, a poem.
Dambo came to realize, as he scattered his mysterious trolls across the globe, that he had constructed over one hundred trolls in his wanderings. Trolls can now be found in seventeen countries and on nearly every continent in the world—popping up in Australia, China,South Korea and Singapore.
In 2023, Dambo launched his United States Way of the Bird King Tour and began building Big Rusty in Hainesport, New Jersey. Big Rusty was completed on June 28, 2023, constructed of all recycled materials. She is 100 meters of rusty metal roof materials, a plywood attic, miscellaneous electrical equipment, concrete and recycled wood.
“For every piece of trash she eats, she grows so big and thick. So careful not to feed the beast, one day she might grow sick.”
Going Cross Country
After Big Rusty was completed, Dambo and his road crew moved on to build Lost Finn in South Londonderry, Vermont, which was completed on July 5. Benny Beardfisher was next to come to life in Germfask, Michigan on July 21. Rita Rockplanter popped up in Cripple Creek, Colorado on August 4. Along the way, Dambo has been chronicling his road trip through reels on Instagram and YouTube. He’s a great communicator and frequently gives Ted Talks and Artist Talks at local venues in the area of his construction projects. He’s also known to update on how some of his earlier trolls are faring.
Public reaction to these installations can be overwhelming. At one-point, local authorities had to shut down access to Lost Finn because they felt the crowds had become unmanageable and the parking situation was deemed dangerous. Recently, there was some reported vandalism down in Hainesport at Big Rusty. Unfortunately, public art can sometimes cause unanticipated commotion.
Trolls of the Pacific Northwest
Dambo has taken the Pacific Northwest by storm—placing six of his ten planned US trolls there. On August 13, Ole-Bolle came to life in Portland, Oregon. She is built from reclaimed wood and old pallets. An old Danish folk song sings of “something in the air, that something makes my belly rumble. Something smells so strong, it hits me, almost makes me stumble. Could it be the little people cooking something smelly, in the big red cookie jar, so I can put them in my belly.” Ole-Belle was built peeking into a house in the woods—and she’s hungry!
Next up, on Bainbridge Island came Pia the Peacekeeper on August 21. Brunn Indun was built in West Seattle and finished on August 28. Legend has her born on the beach in a storm, “and on her flute the magic horn, to ask where they have all gone. She played for them an orca song to ask where they have all gone.”
All Hail the Bird King
Dambo and his band of merry builders and volunteers continued on to Issaquah, Washington and Jacob Two Trees was born on September 3. Frankie the Feetsplitter arrived at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard on September 10. Dambo’s big finale arrived on September 25 when he completed the final troll in his 100-day US building tour—Oscar the Bird King, Troll #125. Constructed on Vashon Island in Washington, he is Dambo’s last stop on this tour, but also one of the 125 trolls this Danish artist has gifted the world in just nine short years. “A 100-day journey which started on the East Coast. I traveled thousands of miles across the United States. Someway, Oscar was already here, waiting for me, even if I hadn’t yet a body,” said Dambo.
Mapping the Trolls
Dambo has constructed a map of his trolls worldwide on his website. The trolls he knows that have fallen into disrepair or are no longer accessible are marked appropriately with gravestones as markers. What’s next for Thomas Dambo, artist/activist/traveler? He plans to build 12 more trolls in the coming year. He has set a personal goal to put one in each of the states in the U.S.
Can’t Stop the Feeling
To watch a Dambo video is to experience joy. His enthusiasm, love of nature, optimism and pure spirit of fun are a tonic to these dark days sometimes. “Trash is a treasure. By sending people on a treasure hunt to find art made of garbage, I hope to create a new appreciation for the things we throw away, and chip away at the ugly single-use mentality that floods our world with trash,” says Dambo of his art. His message is so simple, and his words are so true. Go say hello to our gift, Big Rusty, and appreciate how lucky we are. Dambo’s trolls carry an important message for humanity—and they truly are a gift to the community.
About the Author/s
Sue graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English back when you could still get a degree for reading great literature. She spent nearly 40 years working in the Sales & Marketing field with companies ranging from non-profits to small businesses to Fortune 100 Corporations. Most recently retired after nearly 20 years with S & P Global, she is now free to pursue her true passions for hiking, writing and photography. Sue was born and raised in New York State. As a New Jersey transplant, her passion for the special blend of culture and nature that is uniquely Jersey is what Sue loves to share with the world. She has one grown son that she is insanely proud of. Her husband of many decades is an amazing partner both in life and hiking. When not out exploring, Sue is most likely at home reading a novel with her dog.