Happy wall - Thomas Dambo

For Thomas Dambo, public art is about people doing what they want to do in the city’s visual space. Coming from a graffiti background, Dambo has strong opinions about who owns the right to the visual space in the city - it shouldn’t just be owned by those who have enough money to pay for advertisements


October 21st, 2014 - HappyWall 

Thomas Dambo Studio Visit & Interview

by Scott J Cooper


For Thomas Dambo, public art is about people doing what they want to do in the city’s visual space. Coming from a graffiti background, Dambo has strong opinions about who owns the right to the visual space in the city - it shouldn’t just be owned by those who have enough money to pay for advertisements. His most current project, called The HappyWall, is a direct commentary on that issue. It’s a way for him to create a visual space open to the public - where everybody has the ability to write or draw whatever they want up to 40 meters long!


I went to Dambo’s studio in Copenhagen to talk with him in person about the HappyWall and to see his work space. The entrance is guarded by an infamous pink pony that became a viral hit not too long ago. Someone hijacked it, Dambo confronted the culprit and filmed the whole ordeal. Then he put it on Youtube where it took on a life of it own like videos sometimes do these days.

Once inside the studio, there were other workers and a fairly large and very organized work space - filled with scraps of wood and miscellaneous parts scavenged from around the city. He immediately stressed the fact that he only uses material sourced from dumpers around town and how important this is to him. He goes on to explain: “Everything I do comes from scavenged material.


I believe I can make my biggest dreams come true just with stuff that I find in the dumpster.”


For the The HappyWall Dambo used recycled material that he got from Roskilde Festival (Europe’s second largest music festival); the entire wall is created by 10,000 repurposed beer cradles that were used at the festival to make a huge tribune. "I'm used to scavenging from Roskilde because it's such an enormous temporary city with so much stuff to scavenge." He found the people that made the tribune and asked what they were going to do with it after the festival. They were going to just throw it out. It included 3,000 wooden boards in this specific square size that dictated the size of the squares used in the HappyWall. "The size of the pixels are defined by those seats in the Roskilde installation," he says, adding to the story of the HappyWall and part of the reason why Dambo uses only scavenged material. "And once this comes down, I can turn the HappyWall into Birdhouses."

Birdhouses are Dambo’s trademark installation. He uses them as his tag, instead of the usual spraypainted tag. He originated the idea when he was working at a transport company many years ago; “One week I'd get 100 of those plywood boards, which were all going to the garbage. I felt like I needed to do a project with these plywood boards - or they will just go to the trash. At some point I came up with the idea of making birdhouses. I could go and put up these birdhouses and everybody would look at me and smile. They'd be so happy that I put a birdhouse up on their wall - or light pole or drainpipe or whatever. Everybody would lend me a ladder and everybody would help me, nobody would view this as a tag. But for me it's just what it is - a tag.” Coming from a graffiti background and being immersed in graffiti culture, this suddenly was a breakthrough. A way to create art in the public space that works for both the artist and everyone else. Embracing the challenge of how I could “do something in the public space and not get fined, and not get the police coming after me.”

“At one point in the beginning the police came. They caught me and said “What the fuck are you running from, you can put up those birdhouses - why are you running?” I was like  “...but it's illegal?” To which they responded, "It's a fucking birdhouse!" With all the things I’ve learned about graffiti growing up, I just realized what I do now is not illegal. And then I saw the possibilities of doing stuff like this. People just want to help me.


The cops want to help me - to do something illegal!


“- Do you want to help me bring 20 birdhouses in your car from here to here? -Yes, we want to help you do that.” They would never help me carry graffiti cans around. For me, as an artist, it's exactly the same. Throw up 20 tags or put up 20 birdhouses, for me it's exactly the same. You can change the colors and the shape of a tag, and you can do the same with a birdhouse. Basically it's a different set of rules but it's still the same thing.”


This seems to be where Dambo found his niche, in the gap where graffiti and art meet what the general public appreciates. Using his own mother as an example, he describes why she will never appreciate graffiti culture: “My mother doesn't like graffiti because it's in a language that's aggressive. She doesn't understand it, and in some ways it’s destructive - it's hardcore, it's a boy thing, a middle of the night drunk thing, it's a criminal thing. If you look at it from my mothers point of view, it is all those things - it's a culture she doesn't understand. Even if it said 'LOVE' in hardcore graffiti, she wouldn't understand it, and because of this simple fact she would be scared of it. This put me on a journey to make street art that people would really appreciate. They would appreciate it not for being street art or being illegal, but for what it is. I know so many people that dedicate their whole life to graffiti - all their spare time and money, and nobody appreciates what they do…except for other graffiti painters. I love graffiti and what people do in the public space but I wanted to do something that more than just the graffiti painters would appreciate, like what about my Mom?! So, I thought, can I do something in the public space that is illegal but that people see as a present for the public instead of a threat. That is what put me on this street art journey.”


For Dambo HappyWall is a conceptual installation about who's allowed to have the visual space in the public arena. Should it only be the people who can afford to buy space, like commercial advertisers? Should it be artists that paint it illegally? For Dambo the answer is simple: the public should have the right to the visual space. He concisely explains:


I love to do art in public spaces and I believe that public spaces should be owned by the public. I want to help other people do art in public spaces.”


With HappyWall, engagement is key, having people interact with the art and participate by making art themselves. He made a smaller version at Roskilde Festival that was successful, so when the metro company called he knew exactly what to do with the 40 meter space.

The Metro expansion has made Copenhagen full of construction sites, with these big green walls covering many of the historical landmarks of the city. The city created an initiative to utilize this wall space called 'Byenshegn' (city fence). They divided all the fences and walls into two sections. They sell one section for commercial purposes and the money they gain from that they use on art for the other section. Thomas suspects the story is probably a little bit better than what it actually is if you go into the details, but it's still nice. The municipality of Copenhagen want something interesting on the walls you can see since a lot of the city is a construction site these days.

HappyWall gives people the opportunity to create in the public space. “Everybody is invited to make the biggest art piece, right there in the most visible spot in Copenhagen. It's their space and they can do whatever they want - 40 meters by 4 meters.” The can write or draw anything they want using the pixels. The installation is successful in its physical engagement with the community too. People feel at ease approaching the installation and making their own temporary artwork using the pixels. Part of the ease of creation is due to the limited set of options the viewer is presented with. “It's important that I limited the options. If I made it with unlimited options people wouldn’t use it. Like if I used the same size surface that was made out of chalkboard, nobody but graffiti artists would use it. My mother for example, would never use it because it's not what she’s comfortable doing.”


And there's something really great about the idea of limiting the options to make it more approachable. Essentially people are going up and making the biggest artwork they've ever made in their life. “This way they feel like they can't do it wrong and it's supposed to be like this. It's also temporary so it will be gone in a minute.” If somebody writes something offensive it will get taken down in a matter of minutes. The fact that it’s so temporal adds to the allure of interacting with it, making it much less intimidating. “The most intimidating thing you can give a person is a 1x1 meter blank canvas and a dozen colors to work with. But with the HappyWall limitations, people only have a certain number of pixels, so it's mainly hearts, smileys, and words - their own name or their lovers name.” There's 2000 pixels, so there still a lot of options, but it's nothing like a blank canvas. Dambo chooses the color, people just choose to flip it.


Dambo has also limited his own options by only working with scavenged material. The wood and materials he works with already have scratches and damages on it, making it less intimidating. “It's already trash - it's not like approaching a drawing on a new piece of paper. Because it's trash I don't feel like I'm destroying anything. It was already destroyed and on the way to the furnace.” He doesn’t spend money on new material, so he is liberated from the idea of needing to make something useful or beautiful out of it.


“You can't destroy garbage, you can only change it into something else.”

I asked Thomas Dambo for some funny stories of things people have written on the HappyWall. He immediately told me a really funny one. Someone used the wall to write 'Putin is a dickhead' in Russian. Then somebody in Russia saw a picture of it and put it up on this big Russian blog, which in turn made a Russian newspaper pick up the story. “Then the Danish newspapers start calling me, like: ‘Have you seen this?’” The Russian blog said that “in the center of Copenhagen there's a huge artwork that says ‘Putin is a dickhead’”. But it said nothing about how this was a temporary thing, made by a random person and probably erased moments after the picture was taken.


They thought the Danish government had paid money to write ‘Putin is a dickhead’ 40 meters long.


The origin of the picture turned out to be a Russian Instagram profile, so somebody from Russia came to Denmark and made the statement. Dambo is happy. “This is exactly what I want the wall to be. I want everybody to able to make a huge commercial from their point of view.”


Dambo isn’t worried about it being used as a platform to write offensive or negative things. He considers it a dialogue and an interaction between people writing on it and the next people writing on it. “People use the letters that are already up there, so instead of FUCK U they'll change it to LOVE U or something like that. If somebody writes something super negative it will be taken down quickly. And in that sense it's like democratized art, or democratization of the public space. The opinion of the public dictates what the public space should be, not just the people who have money.” The installation changes all the time according to how the public feels. “It's important that somebody has the right to say 'Putin is a dickhead' because that's what they want to say. Then the next person can say he is a hero, it's all just up to the people putting in the minutes to do it.” It’s the same rules that apply to graffiti. If you make something big and beautiful people will leave it for a long time, but if you make something small and crappy people will use the space to paint something new.



It’s important for Dambo that his installations are physical and made from raw materials. He’s considered the use of video projection and other digital technology, but there's something about the physical thing that is really meaningful to him: “Because we live in such a digitalized world, actually being able to go and touch something becomes significant.” The subtle reversal from digital technology to pre-digital technology is pretty cool as well; having a physical non-digital installation that directly refers to computer pixels.

Having roots in graffiti and now working as a conceptual artist and installation artist - I was curious about how Dambo defines himself as an artist. “I really enjoy inspiring people. Showing people that their biggest dreams can be made possible by using the content in the dumpster on their street.” This is the essence of his art. He loves to show people that he can just jump into a dumpster, find material, and change it into something meaningful. “So in that way I'm also an activist. I like to use my art as activism.


I just think it's amazing that I can create a full time job for me and for my friend, and 2 or 3 interns, only from scavenging the containers around the corner - and I don't even have a driver’s license, we don't have a car!”


Even the bicycles they use are scavenged. The core of his art is activism, reclaiming old material and recycling it into art. “Maybe this is also how I justify what I do, cause in this way what I do gives purpose...I'd like my art to make a difference in some way.” Making an installation out of new material would completely defeat the purpose of what Dambo does. “I would not like my own art if I went into a supply store and bought all the wood and material for it. That would make me consider myself a failure because then I would just be a mass consumer. Don't just mass consume a rainforest to make a fucking pony.”


Now that HappyWall has been successful in Copenhagen, Dambo has plans to do similar projects in different places around the world. This specific installation is going to be up in Copenhagen until the summer of 2015, afterwards Dambo is going to try to move it to another city. The idea could work in just about any place in the world. And judging from the numbers on Instagram, the wall is a huge success. There's almost 5000 pictures with the hashtag HappyWall in four months it’s been up - and that's only counting the ones uploaded with the correct hashtag. So there's probably 500 times that amount that were actually taken of HappyWall. You gotta figure Dambo’s Mother took a few too.