This is not how my Tuesday mornings usually go. I’m bundled into a blacked-out van with no idea where I’m going, passport in hand. My phone is locked in a metal box in the trunk of the van, wrapped in aluminum foil. Even if I could see out the windows, this morning’s dense fog has added another layer of secrecy. I’m on the trail of a mysterious artwork with its maker, Danish artist Thomas Dambo, with absolutely no idea where I’m going.
Dambo has been building giant wooden trolls and hiding them in liminal, lesser-visited spots across the globe since 2014. There are over 30 in his native Denmark, including several within easy reach of the capital, Copenhagen, plus 6 hidden in secret corners of south Australia, and trolls in unlikely spots in China, the mountains of South Korea, as well as Singapore and Belgium. In the United States, his scrap-wood trolls can be discovered in places like Miami’s Biscayne Bay area, Jackson Hole, and Chicago’s Morton Arboretum. You can find them all on his digital map, trollmap.com. In all, Dambo’s creations total 99. And then there’s the troll I’m being taken to see today.
“Three or four years ago, I realized I was going to reach 100 trolls,” Dambo says, who also came up with the idea of this unusual preview tour. “So what should the project be? One thing came to me: to make the most secret troll I have ever made. Most are hidden, but none of them are as well hidden as this one.”
Trolls were a natural symbol for the Danish artist to align himself with. The tradition of trolls in Scandinavian cultures reaches back further than the Vikings, with tales of giant creatures that come out at night and turn to stone in the sunlight—they’re sometimes mischievous, sometimes slow-witted, and all in tune with nature. You may also remember bright-haired troll dolls from your school days or the healing trolls of Frozen; even Finland’s Moomins play into this tradition. In Norway, there are plenty of places to discover troll traditions, such as the legendary Trolltunga—“troll tongue” cliff. Netflix’s 2022 film Troll added a modern reworking to the genre.
“Trolls have a story for us all,” says Dambo, who has created his own sustainability-themed tale around the ancient beings. In his version, trolls are taking care of the world and if you’re good to it, they will take care of you. Dambo’s trolls are all created from scrap wood—an intentional choice he made for sustainability purposes. “If you’re bad, they will eat you!”
The whole idea of creating a troll trail started as a project to get people to rediscover the beauty in the world around them. In 2016, he created The Forgotten Giants, a six-strong trail of giant wood trolls built in Copenhagen on hillsides, under bridges, and in locations people rarely visited. Further projects followed around the world, creating points of interest on tourist trails and opening up lesser-visited locations. When COVID hit Denmark in 2020, and his plans to create a sculpture at Burning Man were shelved, Dambo doubled down on his Danish projects. He created 10 more trolls that could only be found via GPS coordinates in a treasure-hunt style, taking explorers from clue to clue until they found themselves at a hidden location. It was a project he hoped would give a little joy back to the Danish people.
And even though I traveled to see this most recently created troll, I still don’t know its exact location although I have my suspicions. Dambo and his team picked me up at Copenhagen airport at 9 a.m. By around 11 a.m., we had passed a border-crossing point, which may or may not have been a red herring, and tramped through some spring woods without any path to speak of for 15 or 20 minutes. Following the sound of electric drills, we stumbled upon a team of carpenters building a beatific pregnant troll, hands cradling her growing belly, beneath a perfect arch of willow trees. Their hammers were raised, nailing in shingles to the side of the troll, who was styled as a mother of all trolls. With spring blossoms and falling catkins all around, it felt like a truly special spot.
But how exactly do you find it? That’s all part of the fun. The location of this special troll, named Måne Mor (Mother Moon in Danish), will be revealed only after someone has visited Danbo’s 99 other trolls. This year, a new code was attached at the foot of each troll, and when each of these codes has been input into his website, a mysterious riddle will appear—solve the riddle and you’ll find the troll.
And when you work it out, please tell me, too.
Where to find three other Dambo troll installations
● Location: Nordhavn, Copenhagen
Hidden in a semi-urban spot a short walk or cycle from Copenhagen’s freshest development, Nordhavn, this troll is part of Dambo’s COVID-era trail. Discover his precise location and follow the clues on Troll Map.
● Location: Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, Boothbay, Maine
Part of the “Guardians of the Seeds’”troll trail in this botanical gardens an hour’s drive north of Portland, Maine, Lilja is one of five trolls guarding precious seeds and educating younger visitors about the importance of protecting the natural world at the same time.
The Bernheim Forest Giants
● Location: Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Bernheim, Kentucky
Take a gentle two-mile hike around the Bernheim forest to find these three giant trolls, developed in 2020 to celebrate the nature reserve’s 90th birthday. They all come with a free map and a custom fairy tale.
Laura Hall Laura Hall is an award-winning author, travel writer, and journalist based in Copenhagen.