Built to house a number of the facilities that were constructed for the 1988 Summer Olympics, Olympic Park is serviced by three metro stations: Gangdong-gu Office (강동구청역) in the north, Mongchontoseong (몽촌토성역) in the west, and the station we most recently visited, Olympic Park (올림픽공원역) in the east. Besides hosting a number of Olympic facilities, the park is also home to a manmade lake, large park areas, the SOMA art museum, and Mongchon Fortress, all of which we’ll cover at a later date, as those are more accessible from the Gangdong-gu and Mongchontoseong stops.
Before heading into Olympic Park proper we jumped southeast across Nambusunhwan-ro (남부순환로) where the Olympic Plaza is accessible from either Exit 1 or 2. The space is a large concrete expanse that’s two-thirds surrounded by the J-shaped Olympic Shopping Plaza (올림픽프라자상가). With its hulking half-cylinder shape and an air of neglect it looks something like an airport hanger that’s been twisted at one end.
Inside, the shopping plaza was split into two levels, the lower one two narrow aisles lined on either side by surprisingly nice boutiques selling everything from fashion to makeup to eyeglasses. It contrasted with a second floor that didn’t seem to be in much use (the escalators had been turned off), and to the arced glass and metal ceiling. An architectural decision that would have let in showers of light and given the building an open, airy feeling when it was constructed, it was also almost impossible to clean and now gave one the sense of being inside the haze of a fishbowl in a stoner’s apartment.
Just east of and below the plaza is the Seongnae Stream (성내천), lined with thick beds of grass, which continues running slowly north past the east side of the park. Between it and the plaza a pair of fountains shot water into the air. One of them, on a raised circular platform, was serving as the mini-pitch for a handful of teenagers kicking a soccer ball around.
Following the stream and adjacent bike path north brought us to a large stone wall that had been painted black to prepare it as a canvas for the Cream of the Crop graffiti festival, held in conjunction with the recent July 3rd and 4th R-16 b-boy championships. Writers from Korea, Hong Kong, and the U.S. – including our friend Barnes, whom we’ll refer to only by his moniker – had spent the day transforming the stretch of wall into an al fresco gallery of international urban art. The intricate and brightly colored murals had mostly been finished by the time we strolled by, with just a few artists up on ladders adding some finishing touches, while below them hundreds of empty spray paint canisters lay on the pavement. While graffiti and urban art have been making inroads into the Korean subcultural scene in recent years, they’re still far from accepted (Which, really, is for the best, as graffiti loses its power as it loses its subversive status.), and one can only hope that the city will see fit to leave the murals up, at least until next year’s R-16.
Exit 3 drops you off on the east side of Olympic Park, and just to the exit’s north is a long, wide walkway that leads into the center of the park. On the Saturday that we went not only was R-16 taking place, but Usher was also holding a concert in one of the park’s other buildings, and the walkway was filled with people on their way to one or the other, passing by restaurants, portable DJ stands, and booths selling graffiti-inspired and urban clothing.
Olympic Park holds a tennis stadium (테니스경기장), gymnastics hall (체조경기장), swimming venue (수영경기장), fencing hall (펜싱경기장), velodrome (경류장), and convention center (올림픽컨벤션센터), while to the northeast, across Seongnae Stream, are the Seoul Physical Education High School (서울체육고등학교) and the Korea National Sports University (한국체육대학교).
Seoul has done a good job of keeping its Olympic venues from turning into white elephants, an accomplishment that’s certainly been helped by the fact that park space in the city is at such a premium. This can best be seen at the huge 88 Field sandwiched between the Olympic complexes and Mongchon Fortress (몽촌토성) on the park’s west side, an ancient Baekje-era construction, that we’ll get into more whenever we end up at its eponymous station. While a lot of parks in Seoul disappointingly have their grassy areas fenced off, 88 Field is free for the frolicking and was filled with families picnicking and playing baseball and badminton.
We, however, were there for R-16, Korea’s premiere international b-boy championship and urban arts festival, being held in Olympic Hall. Walking in we were greeted by old school funk beats, a ¾ full house, and a large banner of a graffitied Gwanghwamun behind the stage, with two sets of decks and a live trumpet and sax player set up in front of it.
Day 1 was devoted to popping, locking, and individual b-boy performances. Locking, which is co-ed, was what we saw first, and a common fashion among the lockers is something you could term ‘urban mime’: wide stripes, bowlers and oversized pageboy hats, baggy pants sometimes tucked into socks. The second battle featured Yuri in all pink, with billowy slacks and a bow around her waist, against Luna who wore a turquoise sweater vest, bowtie, and beret, and ended her second set by mimicking powdering her face.
After four popping and locking battles we got our first look at the solo b-boy competition when Linh3t from Hanoi’s Big Toe Crew outdueled one of the local boys, and Just Do It from the Netherlands topped Venezuela’s Lil G. Standing up close I could see that the stage, about a meter and a half high, had some spring to it, which was good because when b-boys perform certain moves they hit the ground hard and in general there’s a lot of impact that breakers’ ankles, shoulders, and wrists have to absorb. While popping and locking seem to be mostly about control, rhythm, and precision, there’s a lot of physicality involved in breaking, and not just at the point where hand meets floor. The battles are confrontational and performed with a certain amount of menace. The dancing is aggressive and, while it’s performed for the crowd, it’s performed at the rival b-boy/crew, often occurring right in front of him, flying limbs swinging inches from his face. The second the battle is over, though, the guard is dropped and the b-boys exchange hugs and gestures of respect. The competition is fierce and the battles are serious, but the fraternity that breaking cultivates is always what it comes down to in the end.
By the end of the night three dancers had come out on top to walk away with $2000 checks presented to them by some very out of place-looking middle-aged dudes in polo shirts: Korea’s Poppin J in the popping competition, Takeshi from Japan in the locking, and Just Do It, who topped Brazil’s Neguin to take the solo b-boy crown.
I came back the next day for the crew battle, which featured crews from France, Spain, Korea, China, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Germany, and the Philippines. Each crew performed a showcase routine to determine the battle’s seeding, where they were allowed to use props and basically be as creative as they wished. Once the seedings were announced the crews got to battling. In the event’s single elimination format each battle lasts for ten minutes, which gives each crew about six sets to show off their best toprocking, downrocking, power moves, and freezes. After each set the crew is judged on a scale of one to five in five categories: Foundation, Originality, Dynamics, Execution, and Battle. At the end of the battle the team who tops the most categories wins. In the case of a tie total points are used to separate the two.
As good as the action was the night before, the Sunday crew battle provided the additional spectacle of group moves where b-boys, and sometimes entire crews, would engage in coordinated moves throwing, catching, or jumping over each other, and on one occasion even riding the back of a crew member across the stage like a surfboard, as pulled off by France’s Phase T. It was a local crew, Jinjo, that carried the night, though, knocking off Germany’s Terror Bunch and the Philippines’ Project P-Noise before disposing of Phase T in a confrontational and tense finale, much to the delight of the audience. Korean b-boys have had enormous international success, winning four of the past eight Battle of the Year competitions for example, and Jinjo looks well poised to follow in the footsteps of legendary Korean crews like Gamblerz and Rivers.
R-16 provides more spectacle than just the battles, however. The festival wrapped up with a mini-concert by Supreme Team and Mighty Mouth, and offered performances in between battle rounds. Sunday night featured both a Sachoom sampler performance and a routine from the PREPIX dance crew. Dressed in blue hooded jumpsuits and black leather boots and gloves, and with screens over their faces the dancers looked like rather kinky sci-fi beekeepers or employees at the world’s funkiest biochem lab. Breaking from hip-hop, their routine was set to electronic and was fidgety, intricate, and delightfully weird.
For me, though, the highlight of the whole weekend came before Saturday night’s final battles when a pungmul troop took the stage. The lights dimmed and the decks stopped, and the only sound in the hall was the kkwaenggwari, janggu, and buk pounding out a much older rhythm. After a few minutes the troop was joined onstage by the Rhythm Monsterz Family crew. The DJs started spinning again, and for the first time at the competition the classic beats of ‘Apache’ filled the auditorium, the pungmul musicians falling in and pounding their drums in time with the downbeat.
It was a traditional form of physicality and sound coming together with a modern one, and at one moment you could see the new and old Korean movement reflected in each other: Most of the performers retreated to the back of the stage, leaving in the middle only a solo b-boy, his legs revolving in the air as he did spinning handstands while a lone kkwaenggwari player twirled around him, his body nearly horizontal, legs windmilling circles through the air.
Olympic Plaza and Olympic Shopping Plaza (올림픽프라자상가)
Exit 1 or 2
Seongnae Stream (성내천)