Thomas Dambo was seven when his parents let him tear down the fence in their backyard. A family had just moved in next door, so Mr. and Mrs. Dambo thought their son would enjoy a shared play space with the neighbors’ two young kids. The area wasn’t huge, but it was big enough for the boys to build a makeshift kingdom from whatever they found lying around the neighborhood. “It was our own little country,” Dambo says.
Now 37, Dambo has turned that childhood hobby into a career as an artist. He’s commissioned to build massive sculptures around the world, from Germany to Australia, using reclaimed materials like scrap wood, plastic paint buckets and unidentifiable junk that companies would otherwise pay to get rid of. Dambo takes it for free. He’s salvaged thousands of pallets and thousands of feet of technicolor beer-keg tubing from Denmark’s biggest music festival. When the local variety store renovated its interior, Dambo rescued hundreds of wheels and packable crates. Subtract the spray paint he uses and his materials costs near zero.
With a few helping hands, Dambo has built a life-sized Indian elephant, countless birdhouses and a few interactive installations, but he’s best known for his giants. Undead wolf Olav was a hit with metalheads at Copenhell festival where it was ceremoniously torched to the ground. Stone-hurling troll Hector still sits as el protector of Culebra, Puerto Rico. The artist and his team have erected 28 giants in five countries, but it’s the six hidden in the woods outside Copenhagen that went viral, when Dambo posted them to the social media sharing site boredpanda and got over 235,000 Facebook likes. A mayor in Italy even rang the artist up to inquire about a giant for his own town.
Initially commissioned for a piece to connect six Copenhagen suburbs, Dambo decided to take the work way outdoors and devised a treasure hunt for discovering oft-forgotten parks. He named his creatures the Forgotten Giants.
“I thought it would be fun to do a project that wasn’t in your face in the city center but was something that you had to go look for,” he says. “People might think they have to take a plane to Thailand to experience something new, but there’s so much stuff we haven’t seen around the corner from where we live. We tend to move in these straight lines between our work, supermarket and home. We seldom take another route.”
The giants caught the attention of Susan Gritzman, a project manager from the nonprofit Børnehjælpsdagen, which organizes field trips for kids from troubled homes. She contacted Dambo’s assistant, Troels Nielsen, and arranged a tour for 20 kids and a handful of foster parents.
“We wanted to let them see how you can use art to feel better,” Gritzman says.
The kids were skeptical at first—some expected a literal treasure hunt—but eventually took up the task. Carrying cartoon treasure maps, they wound around trees and through tall grass in search of the giants, at times stopping to feed a family of goats. Finally they stumbled upon Thomas on the Mountain, with his mammoth ears, bald head and elongated legs. Across the valley stood another troll named Little Tilde, peeking timidly from behind a pair of beech trees.
Gritzman encourages the kids to use their imagination on outings, and this time she suggested they write stories for the forgotten giants.
In one kid’s tale, Thomas on the Mountain hails from a far-off land called “Trollsylvania” and has a taste for tourists, especially children, whom he finds delicious. In another story, Tilde looks so timid because she lost her family somewhere on the other side of the lake. She’s waiting patiently for grownups to build her a bridge so she can reunite with them.
“It’s good for [the kids] to combine nature and imagination to find some calmness,” Gritzman says.
Earlier this year Dambo moved his workspace into a 2,300-square-foot warehouse in Copenhagen’s old shipyard. He calls it his recycling paradise. Fifty old jigsaw puzzles are stacked over the coffee machine. Warped and discolored lumber occupies the entire back wall. To the untrained eye, the place looks fully stocked, but Nielsen knows better. “More will come,” he says laughing. “Thomas can really fill this place up fast.”
There’s a spirit in the workshop of the young Dane who built a kingdom in his backyard, the spirit of someone who grew up but never grew out of his passion. Now Dambo travels the world as a professional artist, sharing the axiom he’s lived by since he was seven—one person’s trash is someone else’s treasure.
“You can make your dreams come true with trash,” he says. “You can make things that are big, beautiful and inspiring.”