Avant-garde: transforming street knives into urban gymnasiums | Aptitude

ILooks like Jay Chris is waving at the crowd with his legs. The shirtless and two-time Swedish gymnastics world champion performs an “overturned flag” atop parallel bars, a delicate maneuver in which he keeps his upper body straight while bending his lower limbs to one side. “I think this image gives an idea of ​​the performative aspect of Swedish gymnastics,” says Bertie Oakes, the photographer behind the shot. “It’s kind of like skateboarding or breakdancing where you have a crowd circled around one person, doing what they can for a minute or two, and then someone else walks in.” The muscles vibrate, the music vibrate and, he says, “everyone is shouting encouragement.”

The photo was taken on a sunny April afternoon and, like others in a new series of Oakes, it gives a glimpse of a community that has thrived over the past year in a room unassuming outdoor sports center in South London. In this corner of Ruskin Park, Lambeth, friendships were forged through planks, muscle-ups, back levers, and other movements of Swedish gymnastics, a type of strength training sometimes referred to as’ weight training. street ”or even“ street gymnastics ”because of the way participants contort their bodies. (It uses bars and bodyweight and includes exercises based on repetitions, “static” holds, and “dynamic” movements such as swing and spin.)

Getting started: dancer Sherrel Miller. Photography: Bertie Oakes

When London’s closures closed indoor gymnasiums, locals turned to the metal-framed constellation of Ruskin Park. Oakes was among them. Although the 23-year-old photographer lives opposite the park and has often walked past his equipment. He had always felt embarrassed to join the shirtless and chiseled guys. When he finally decided to hit bars in early 2021, he found his worries were misplaced. “If you’re brave enough to say hello, it doesn’t matter if you can’t do a pull-up, the guys will be interested and give you advice,” Oakes explains. He also realized that the magnetic personalities of the stage and the flamboyant displays of athleticism had to be captured on film.

Queen of bars winner Simone Ming standing horizontal on bars
Unlimited: Queen of the Bars winner Simone Ming. Photography: Bertie Oakes

The history of the gymnasium predates its muscular inhabitants. A glittering sign in front of the bars, which are arranged in different heights and configurations, reads: “This shows that lives are to be built of steel, not destroyed by it. The facility was built in 2019 by Steel Warriors, a London-based charity that collects knives confiscated from the streets by police, melts them and turns them into equipment. “London has been experiencing a knife crime epidemic for years, so the initiative seems quite logical,” says Christian d’Ippolito, a Ruskin Park regular who was until recently responsible for marketing and partnerships for Steel Warriors. “It was all just virtuous,” he adds.

Getting Started: Worn chalk-covered gloves help athletes perform their movements on the bars.
In the swing: Worn gloves covered in chalk help athletes perform their movements on the bars. Photography: Bertie Oakes

Like the association’s other two sites at Finsbury Park and Tower Hamlets, the Ruskin Park gymnasium has provided a lifeline for disgruntled youth. “It keeps kids from getting into gang life and creates a much safer environment for them,” says Alex Thomas Kingham, 20, who trains here almost every day. “It makes them forget about all that garbage and gives them something to do.”

With perseverance, some young people find that they excel in movements. The gymnasium has become a breeding ground for the fledgling Swedish gymnastics movement in the UK, which is similar to where breakdancing was located several years ago, Ippolito says. Team Instinct, a group of elite athletes who compete in Swedish gymnastics events in the UK and abroad, were formed here last year. The team has received sponsorship from brands such as JD Sports and some of its members, including its blue haired captain Goku Nsudoh, are racking up hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok.

End of the day: The sun sets over the Steel Warriors gymnasium in Ruskin Park, south London.
End of the day: The sun sets over the Steel Warriors gymnasium in Ruskin Park, south London. Photography: Bertie Oakes

Most importantly, the gymnasium allowed locals of all skill levels and socio-economic backgrounds to share exercise tips and life tips while dusting callused palms with chalk improving grip. and while waiting for their turn on the bar. “Every person in this region has trained here at least once,” said Shakade Khan, a 22-year-old Instinct member with a silver tongue. He only got to know his neighbors when they started working side by side. Now, “We say hello to each other and they say hello to my mom,” he says. “Steel Warriors opened the doors to a new community. “

Here: Christian, former Marketing Manager at Steel Warriors but also an elite athlete and member of Team Instinct, does a full board;  one of the most advanced static holds in Swedish gymnastics.
Here: Christian, former Marketing Manager at Steel Warriors but also an elite level athlete and member of Team Instinct, does a full board; one of the most advanced static holds in Swedish gymnastics. Photography: Bertie Oakes

Unfortunately, the charity might not be able to do this for other neighborhoods. He had planned to open 20 gyms, but a few months ago Co-Op, his main sponsor, withdrew funds. Now it seems unlikely that more facilities will be built.

Beyond just showing off “beautiful photos from a few cool months I spent with these guys,” Oakes hopes his photos can be a call to arms for donations. “I have seen how positive this community has been,” he says, “and I’m sure more gyms across the UK could be positive for others.”

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