Young, dangerous and free

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Young, dangerous and free

When you're young and tender, every Korean parent will tell you: "Be good and study hard."

Our Generation Xers did the opposite. They broke the rules, and they didn't study. That's how they got ahead.

When Choi Hea-min's peers were practicing for their driver's tests, he was already competing in the Formula 3 series -- the youngest on the tracks. Professional snowboarder Park Sung-jin was doing aerial acrobatics when his classmates were still sledding down hills.

Animal caretaker Kim-Minjeong may have a degree in French literature, but she's more comfortable tossing dead chickens at hungry lions than discussing the finer points of Voltaire. Tattooist Kim Gun-won dropped out of college to explore the living canvas -- the human body. And fashion designer Lee Jung-eun, better known as Lava, has been shocking people since she was in high school.


Driven to succeed from a tender age

Fastest speed: 220 kilometers per hour (136 mph)

What scares him most: "When Lee Myung-mok, my teacher, doesn't say anything."

If he quits racing: He would be a car designer

His idol: German racer Michael Schumacher

His rival: "I want to race against my teacher."

When Choi Hea-min won the Grand Prix at a go-cart championship for two years in a row, Korea's top car racer, Lee Myung-mok, took notice. Mr. Choi was 15 and didn't have a driver's license.

Mr. Lee became young Mr. Choi's mentor and trained him to compete in the local Formula 1800 Series race in 2001. Mr. Choi finished sixth, even though he was only 17. After training at Mr. Lee's racing school earlier this year, Mr. Choi took fifth recently in the a big race in Changwon, South Gyeongsang province.

Born and raised in Busan, Mr. Choi's first encounter with speed was driving go-carts in Yongin, Gyeonggi province, in 1999. He researched racing on the Web and struck a deal with his father: He could travel to Seoul on weekends to race if his grades improved. But his grades dropped instead.

He still pursued his dream, though, particularly after seeing races on television. He loved the thunderous roar of Formula cars.

A compact 178 centimeters and 59 kilograms (5 feet 9 inches and 130 pounds) and naturally talented, the 19-year-old is considered by professionals in the sport to be a promising candidate to represent Korea in the international racing scene in the future. He is the first recipient of the new Everland Speedway Scholarship System, which helps young drivers compete globally.

Does he ever get scared? "It's a little scary when the car goes into a spin," he says, noting that he hasn't had an accident but has spun off the course a few times. "Sometimes I used to think I could die in an accident. But that was when I didn't know much about racing and thought it dangerous. Now that I know about safety devices, it doesn't scare me much." To compete, he must abide by strict international safety regulations. Drivers must wear helmets and nonflammable suits, and the cars must have a steel roll cage.

In racing, he says, spontaneity and poise are the most important elements once a driver learns the basic techniques.

Last year, Mr. Choi got his driver's license and began tooling about in his mother's sedan, a Hyundai Sonata. He sticks to the speed limits; racing belongs on the track.

Under Mr. Lee's tutelage, Mr. Choi is looking for a sponsor and hoping to compete in Britain or France. Now he's preparing for this year's Formula 1800 series in Yongin.

Mr. Choi, a physical education major at Kyungsung University in Busan, keeps in shape by jogging an hour three or four times each week. "Car racers, like pilots, need to build up endurance in order to endure the pressure from the speed and to withstand the centrifugal force on the circuit," he says.


Chairman of board is into risky business

First and last snowboards: Winterstick, Burton Custom '03

First and last trick: Ollie FS, 1080 FS

First and last sponsor: Forum Korea, Burton Korea

Favorite moves while riding: Pulling any kind of aerial trick on the halfpipe, particularly spins -- where you don't flip when airborne, you rotate

Park Sung-jin is at the front line of Korea's new winter warrior generation, leading the pack with his vicious aerial halfpipe tricks and stunning versatility on the powder. Mr. Park, 22, picked up snowboarding six years ago, motivated solely by a music video with a bunch of snowboarders tearing through snowbanks on some remote mountain.

Starting from humble ollies (jumps) with his old Winterstick board and progressing to the notorious aerial 1080 (three full turns in midair) on his Burton Custom '03 carbon-triax, Mr. Park has drastically elevated all aspects of his ride.

Since he first hit Phoenix Park, the Gangwon province ski resort, Mr. Park has been all over the planet, conquering mountains slope by slope.

It's no surprise that Whistler Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is his favorite location. Few snowboarders can resist the resort's near-perfect snow conditions, outstanding snowboard runs and excellent facilities.

Pushing his performance to the limit, Mr. Park has had some of his most frightening experiences at Whistler. He recalls one event in particular: his first railside on a single rail, in which a rider jumps onto a bannister-like rail and rides downhill in various stances at 48 kilometers an hour (30 mph). "That scared me more than anything else I've done while riding," he says.

His gravity-defying stunts have made him the object of desire for several corporate sponsors. Before he was old enough to vote, Mr. Park was the Korean front man for Forum snowboards. Since then he has since moved on to become a Burton pro rider. He does additional promotions for Spy goggles and the Nixon board-riding company.

Railside events and pulling 1080s: pretty mind-blowing stuff considering how easy he makes it all look. But what does a dude who bends the laws of physics do when he's not causing crowds to crane their necks skyward?

Mr. Park says with a chuckle that if he wasn't snowboarding professionally, he'd be playing basketball -- and that he likes to catch movies, spin some ballads or hip-hop, and chill out with his friends. As hard as this might be to fathom, professional athletes -- as it turns out -- are human after all.


From a secretary to a jungle queen

Biggest teeth: 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) from the gum to the tip, on the lions

Biggest appetite: 6-7 kilograms (2 pounds 14 ounces to 3 pounds), the daily intake of raw chicken for Hoshik, a 13-year-old tiger

Most unpredictable: Black bears, they're crafty

Personally can lift: 30 kilograms of raw meat

Rule No. 1 at the Safari animal park in Everland is simple: Don't Touch the Animals.

Most of the park's wild cats roam free within their boundaries. When it's cold, they loll in the sun. Their fur looks soft and pettable in the sun. Is animal caretaker Kim Min-jeong ever tempted?

"Will my answer be printed?" she asks with a mischievous smile.

The French literature major is taking the road less traveled. It has brought her to the Safari, where she is one of 50 animal caretakers.

One of 50 doesn't sound special, until you consider the number of safaris in Korea: one.

"I'm just like any other person growing up," Ms. Kim says. "I loved animals as a kid." But now, instead of taking in stray dogs, the 27-year-old cares for lions, tiger and bears.

Her thoughts on lions: Females are aggressive, males less so. But it's frightening when either get angry.

Tigers: Lots of energy. Sometimes they'll leap on top of the jeep and go for a ride.

Bears: People think they're slow and stupid. But they're fast and clever.

After graduating from college, she worked as a secretary at a nursery school. Then her parents gave away her two dogs. "I was really mad," she says, "and wanted to do something with animals."

She submitted an application to Everland almost two years ago. Some family members were opposed. "They said that it was dangerous, and all I'd ever do is clean up dung."

So what does she do? Besides scooping dung, she feeds and monitors the health of 70 animals. She helps train new animals and takes guests on private safari tours in a four-wheel drive.

Her short-term goals include studying zoology abroad and visiting Busch Gardens in Florida and the Singapore Zoo. Later, she wants to teach zoology at a local university.

On a recent Tuesday, Ms. Kim is driving her zebra-striped four-by-four around the lion safari. Everland has three safari zones, one for lions, tigers and ligers (a cross breed of lions and tigers), another for giraffes, zebras and camels, and a third for bears. She always brings along a canister of chicken meat for the lions and tigers and crackers for the bears. She also stuffs her glove compartment with apples for the bears.

She drives to the bear safari. The first set of doors to the double gates opens, then the second set. A black bear rambles up to the jeep. She rolls down the window, and offers an apple to the bear.

The windows are protected with a steel grid, but have been replaced countless times. "Bears are awfully strong," she says, "When they push, they really push. Maybe you shouldn't print that." When animals beg for food, it's easy to forget that they're wild.

She gives an apple to a safari guest, and rolls down the passenger seat window. "Don't stick your arm out," she warns.


Gifted tattoo artist connects the dots

Trademarks: Pierced gums, belly button and ears and a scarf around her head

Favorite tattoo: A freehand tattoo, "Three Dancers," on a contemporary dancer's left arm

Embarrassing moment: Being kicked out of a bathhouse for asking people to model nude

Before I'm 40: I'm going to make tattooing legal

Scariest customers: Tattoo "rookies" who get tattoos with little more thought than buying a necklace

Leave your black clothes at home. Otherwise, you might disappear into Kim Gun-won's walls. Then again, you might fit in with the factory lighting, Nepalese masks, sketches on oil paper, wooden platform bed and wide open spaces.

Ms. Kim, 27, moved into this second-floor dive above a pharmacy in Daerim-dong, west Seoul, more than a year ago. She tore the place up. When the dust settled, the tattoo parlor that emerged was unique. Her space looks like an artist's studio.

Ms. Kim, a "dabbler in all arts," was a fine arts major at Sungshin Women's University who was "looking for something to claim as mine." She had long been interested in tattoos, and began learning from a Canadian friend when she was 22.

The more she studied tattooing, the more responsibility she felt. "You're creating a permanent image on a body," she says. She immersed herself in the study of techniques, becoming faster and proficient at shading, developing a steady hand for exact lines.

There wasn't enough time for college and tattoos, so she quit college five years ago, after her freshman year. Her parents weren't pleased. "Everything I have goes into being a tattoo artist," she says.

People find Ms. Kim by word of mouth. An artist with an interest in the human form, she sizes up her clients. If a person wants a tiger on his shoulder, she places it according to the curve of his arm so the tiger looks as if it's rearing up. "The body is a dimensional canvas in motion," she says.

She must abide by her clients' design requests, so her style varies. But when she draws free-hand, a tribal or mystical style emerges that has a rich depth of color and movement.

Once she tattooed three dancers on a man's arm; the subtle blues made it seem like an impressionist painting.

When she's in a slump, she goes abroad to Japan or to France to learn from other tattoo artists. Usually she comes back inspired. She has been invited to Yokohama this summer to be a guest artist at a tattoo shop there.

Her cell phone rings. It's an old client. "I've got better ink, and I've moved to a new place," she says. "Sunday? I'm booked solid on Sundays for two months."

She hangs up, and says, "If you get good enough, you start to see where you're lacking." While working in Yokohama, she hopes to study under Shigae, the master there, and be tattooed by him. She has already tattooed the insides of her own feet with a graffiti-style flower and her ankle with a fish and a Chinese character. Shigae will begin tattooing her left arm on June 15 with a fish, lotus and waves in a Japanese New School design.

"Tattooing is so different from other arts," she says. "I can't throw out what I do and start again. And in some cases I'll never see my work again. But my work will live on -- on that person until they die."


Controversy erupts if she's in the show

Worst moment: An old lady threw a stone at her and called her a name

The height of her platform shoes: 17 centimeters (7.25 inches)

The scandal: During a live concert, a tiny midriff garment made of golden film exposed the singer Lee Jung-hyun's breasts

Most expensive project: 56 million won ($48,000) to dress a battalion of Chinese soldiers who played extras in a television commercial for a mobile phone

The number of baby hairpins she owns: 100

She calls herself Lava, after the liquid that spews from volcanoes. And she's just as hot.

While most designers shyly appear then dart backstage at fashion shows, Lee Jung-eun, 31, struts out wearing a pink corset and white disco boots. She dances, waves her hands high and hangs with her models for photo sessions.

Her office walls are hot pink. Her shelves hold rhinestone tiaras. Racks are packed with adult versions of Barbie doll clothes: frilly tops, glittering skirts and PVC hot pants. Lava sits on a hot pink ottoman and checks her zebra-fur-covered date book. Her long blonde hair, with white and turquoise streaks, is covered by a crocheted blue cap. Her doe eyes are outlined in black eyeliner and her lips are painted pink.

"When I was growing up, people told me I was different," she says. "They pointed and laughed at me because I dressed funny. I had a complex about my appearance. I thought all Koreans hated me."

Then, when she was 19 and still in high school, she met a Korean man who encouraged her to dress the way she wanted. "He knew I was going to be a designer," she says.

After high school she traveled to the United States and Europe. She found Italy liberating and began studying fashion design at Istituto Maragoni in Milan. There, she was offered a few design jobs simply because she "looked right." In New York, her fancy clubbing clothes appealed to Latin and black women.

Lava's return to Korea in 1997 for "just a brief stay" has turned into a longer stretch than expected. She continues to show her collections here. It's a lot of work doing biannual fashion shows, but Lava always pulls it off. "For the last season, I made 50 outfits in just two days," she says. "A storm of ideas comes to me at random moments -- like when I'm driving. I work on those ideas like crazy and then get so sick of them when the show is over."

She exports her line to boutiques in Japan and Taiwan. But what keeps her busy is designing clothes for TV commercials. In a Samsung Electronics bit, Lava's white PVC pantsuit alters the childlike shape of the actress Jeon Ji-hyeon. The outfit created gossip about the actress's body and Lava's clothes. The suit, Lava says, later sold on an auction Web site for 30 million won.

by Ines Cho, Joe Yong-hee
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