It looks like Jay Chris is waving to the crowd with his legs. The bare-chested, two-time world calisthenics champion is performing a “flag handstand” atop parallel bars, a tricky manoeuvre in which he keeps his upper body straight while bending his lower limbs to one side. “I think that image gives a sense of the performative aspect of calisthenics,” says Bertie Oakes, the photographer behind the shot. “It’s a bit like skateboarding or breakdancing where you have a crowd circled around a person, who does what they can for a minute or two, and then someone else jumps in.” Muscles pulse, music pulsates and, he says, “everyone shouts encouragement.”
The picture was taken on a sunny afternoon in April and, like others in a new series by Oakes, it provides a snapshot of a community that has flourished over the past year at an unassuming outdoor gym in south London. In this corner of Ruskin Park, Lambeth, friendships have been forged over planches, muscle-ups, back levers and other moves from calisthenics, a type of strength training that’s sometimes called “street workout” or even “street gymnastics” owing to the way participants contort their bodies. (It uses bars and bodyweight and includes reps-based exercises, “static” holds and “dynamic” moves such as swinging and spinning.)
When London’s lockdowns shuttered indoor gyms, locals turned to Ruskin Park’s constellation of metal frames. Oakes was among them. Although the 23-year-old photographer lives opposite the park and had often walked past its equipment. He’d always felt self-conscious about joining the shirtless, chiselled guys. When he finally decided to hop on to the bars in early 2021, he found his concerns had been misplaced. “If you’re brave enough to say hello, it doesn’t matter if you can’t do a pull up, the guys will take an interest and give you advice,” says Oakes. He also realised that the scene’s magnetic personalities and flamboyant displays of athleticism needed to be captured on film.
The gym’s story predates its brawny inhabitants. A gleaming sign in front of the bars, which are arranged in varying heights and configurations, reads: “It stands to show that lives should be built from steel, not destroyed by it.” The facility was built in 2019 by Steel Warriors, a London charity that collects knives that have been confiscated from the streets by police, melts them down and turns them into equipment. “London has had a knife-crime epidemic for years now, so the initiative seems quite logical,” says Christian d’Ippolito, a Ruskin Park regular who until recently was Steel Warriors’s head of marketing and partnerships. “The whole thing has been nothing short of virtuous,” he adds.
Like the charity’s two other sites in Finsbury Park and Tower Hamlets, the Ruskin Park gym has provided a lifeline for disaffected youths. “It stops kids getting into the gang life and creates a much safer environment for them,” says Alex Thomas Kingham, 20, who trains here nearly every day. “It takes their minds off all that rubbish and gives them something to do.”
With perseverance, some youngsters find they excel at the moves. The gym has become a breeding ground for the UK’s nascent calisthenics movement, which is similar to where breakdancing was several years ago, says d’Ippolito. Team Instinct, a group of elite athletes who compete in calisthenic events in the UK and abroad, was formed here in the past year. The team has received sponsorship from brands including JD Sports and some of its members, including its blue-haired captain Goku Nsudoh, are racking up hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok.
Most significantly, though, the gym has enabled locals of all skill levels and socio-economic backgrounds to share exercise tips and life hacks while dusting calloused palms with grip-enhancing chalk and waiting for their turn on the bar. “Every single person in this area has trained here at least once,” says Shakadé Khan, a 22-year-old member of Instinct with a silver tongue. He only got to know his neighbours when they started working out side by side. Now, “We say hello to each other and they say hello to my mother,” he says. “Steel Warriors has opened doors to a new community.”
Unfortunately, the charity might not be able to do this for other neighbourhoods. It had planned to open 20 gyms but, a few months ago, Co-Op, its main sponsor, pulled funding. Now it looks unlikely that any more facilities will be built.
Beyond merely presenting “nice pictures of a cool couple of months I spent with these guys,” Oakes hopes his photos can be a call to arms for donations. “I’ve experienced first-hand how positive this community has been,” he says, “and I’m sure more gyms across the UK could be positive for others.”