'Love Your BTS' Exhibition Demonstrates It's Time to Take K-pop Fan Art Seriously

Caitlin Kelley
Amino celebrates BTS’s new ‘Love Yourself’ exhibit.

Is there a place for the headcanon of fan art within the hallowed halls of capital-A Art? Amino, a mobile social media platform, seems to think so.

Fan art is a core facet of fandom where a chosen interest becomes the meeting ground for all mediums and artistic abilities. These works can often be seen in trend pieces covering fan-designed movie posters, Pokemon fusions and the Foo Fighters’ fondness for “weird” fan art. But K-pop superstars BTS happen to have an ultra-vocal support base called ARMY, who alerted Amino to the artistic possibilities of these fan artists' work.

Now that K-pop is becoming more critically viable -- with reviews of acts like BTS, IU and Day6 in Spin, The New York Times and even Hyperallergic -- fan art about K-pop seems likely to follow that trajectory after being given its own exhibition.

Amino hosted a fan art exhibition for BTS on Friday (Oct. 13) and Saturday (Oct. 14) in what was once the Lisa Cooley Gallery in New York City, featuring around 174 artworks culled from social media through the hashtag #Love_Your_BTS, a play on the septet’s latest album, Love Yourself: Her.

The event was part of Amino’s push to bring a million BTS fans (also known individually as ARMYs) to the platform. Amino is a more image-friendly, mobile version of Reddit that allows users to build their own communities -- the perfect breeding ground for fandom participation. Founded in 2011, the startup is the brainchild of co-founders Ben Anderson and Yin Wang, who were inspired by real-life fandom conventions like Comic Con that bring like-minded people together. The app’s biggest communities revolve around Pokemon, motorcycles and, of course, BTS.

As of Thursday (Oct. 19), ARMY’s Amino had an estimated 640,000 members, while nearly 3,000 BTS-themed communities -- including those that specialize in more niche subjects like memes, ships and roleplay -- span six different languages on the app.

That burst of activity from the fandom made a big impression on Amino. “We had a meeting earlier in the summer where we actually printed out a lot of the fan art to give to somebody and framed it. And I was just struck with how amazing this stuff [was],” Tyler Pennell, Amino’s marketing rep, tells Billboard over the phone. “We were like, 'We want to give a proper platform to this amazing stuff and make sure that there's a space, that it's respected on the same level as other art.'”

So, the company set out to curate a gallery dedicated to ARMY’s fan art. The project was spearheaded by Angie Cho, a senior marketing strategist at Amino, whose work included creating arrangements for the “smeraldo” flower BTS member Jin tweeted (which figures largely into fan theories surrounding Love Yourself: Her) and organizing a Happy Birthday booth, where fans could write letters to lead vocalist and main dancer Jimin (whose birthday was Oct. 13, the Friday of the exhibition).

Although the focus on fan art was unconventional, the event deviated even further from gallery exhibition norms. “Love Your BTS” was not so much about the passive appreciation of art as it was about being a full-on fan experience. Dance parties broke out around a projector, popular K-pop YouTuber Jessica Gullasch (known as The Jess Lyfe) vlogged with guests and the abundance of fans ruined any chance of maintaining your personal space.

But the focus remained firmly on the artworks, which were created through many different mediums. Pennell says that the Amino team used “a curatorial eye” to ensure a diversity of content among ARMY’s fan art.

The showcase tapped into the variety of fan art that fills online social media platforms. “I've seen so many artistic takes of BTS content -- like anatomy studies from choreographies, comics based on new inside jokes made in broadcasts, and even Renaissance-like illustrations based on comeback concepts like ‘Blood Sweat and Tears,’” says fan artist Alison Thng (a.k.a. @kkumrii on Twitter), whose work was featured at the “Love Your BTS” event. “We are constantly given new insights into their personalities and visual inspirations from photobooks and music videos, then adapt them into fan art [and] put them into the new alternate universes each comeback presents.”

Thng herself has a unique style that reflects her interest in anime series like Haikyuu!! and Boku no Hero Academia, as seen in her “Love Your BTS” submissions shared on Twitter. Her work is adept at adapting V and Jungkook’s facial features to an exaggerated anime style -- and she expertly blended warm colors to capture the reddish hue seen in BTS’ “Not Today” music video.

However, the most common form of fan art is realist portraiture, according to Gullasch, who attributes that art form’s popularity to fans’ desire to “capture the idol as they are.” Catarina Abrantes (who goes by @funsizedcat on Twitter), another fan artist featured in the show, says that realism is universally popular. “It's not just in fan art,” she says, “people all around just like to see drawings as close to the real thing.” That longing for realism is part of what makes an IRL event so special to fans, particularly the artists.

For the most part, Abrantes approaches the BTS members’ facial features from a realistic angle, while embedding them in more imaginative surroundings. Her black-and-white portrait of Jimin was inspired by photography that overlays two images together. “I went for his profile where he just looks kind of calm, because I think he's kind of reserved when he's not on stage,” she says. “But when he's on stage, he just commands everybody to look at him. So there's the spotlight.”

Her digital art transformed when Amino turned them into prints framed behind plexiglass. As a newly physical object, the reflection of the gallery lights against the glass added a tactile dimension that emphasized her spotlight concept -- which was one of the ways the IRL aspect of the space changes digitally native fan art.

“For us digital artists, when we see our art printed, it's a whole other feeling,” Abrantes says. “'Cause we only see it on the screen. So when we see it in paper in our hands, it's amazing… I don't know why, but the screen is just -- it feels more [like] we're separated from it.”

Fan artist Xiao Zeng (a.k.a. @fabxiao on Twitter), whose watercolor fan art was displayed at the gallery, says social media fosters a kind of sensory overload that discourages viewers from truly appreciating art online. “Sometimes I get a little scared going on Twitter because there’s so much going on, I feel overwhelmed,” she says. “So sometimes when people scroll through their [Instagram], they would just go back so quickly, they never stop and linger and look at the digital piece.”

Thng says that a real-life gallery could help combat the idea that fan art is not “real art.” “This has been an ongoing argument to this very day,” she says. “Fan communities are changing this with fan art exhibitions like ‘Love Your BTS’ and I'm very thankful, as it helps to reinforce that artistic content comes in all forms and inspirations.”

The art world scoffs at the fan-driven art form for a few reasons. Fan art is, by definition, referential. Outsiders might feel out of their depth because they won’t understand highly specific allusions, like Zeng’s Impressionistic depiction of the “DNA” music video. On a critical level, fan art might not be seen as interpretively rich. The art’s primary function is to express love for a given interest, which isn’t widely seen as a dignified artistic value.

Abrantes says that onlookers underestimate the subject matter of fan art because it’s seen as derivative. “People online, sometimes they think, 'Oh you do fan art, it's because you have no imagination, because you don't have any original characters and stuff,'” she says. “Fan art for the most part has just been a really big thing on the internet, but at the same time, we're really separated from everyone.” The hyper-segmentation of communities on the internet means that fan art dedicated to BTS is a self-contained phenomenon, where interest in the art is largely dependent on interest in the band itself.

Indeed, the main thing that seems to differentiate K-pop fan art from so-called proper art right now is not having the right people to take it seriously. In a New York Times examination from 20 years ago of who decides what works count as art, late critic Thomas McEvilley told the paper, “It seems pretty clear by now that more or less anything can be designated as art. The question is, Has it been called art by the so-called ‘art system?’ In our century, that's all that makes it art.”

But the hyper-segmentation of the internet has, in some ways, decentralized the power long held by art world elites. The “Love Your BTS” exhibition itself greeted over 2,500 fans over the course of two days. The sheer amount of ARMYs overall -- BTS is the most-followed Korean act on Twitter with over 9 million followers -- could prove useful in legitimizing of the group's fan art. “[BTS’] fandom right now -- I bet it’s the biggest K-pop fandom ever,” says Zeng.

"Fan content brings people together, and creators are able to not only express how they see the people they admire, but are also able to incorporate artistic elements to add more magic and emotions into the infinite depth that art provides within a canvas," Thng reinforces. "To have your piece selected or included in an exhibition is extremely humbling, and makes you realise that fan art can be brought a step further when communities come together to make it happen.”

And the fan artists Billboard interviewed all see the real-life gallery space as having a legitimizing effect on fan art. “I think it definitely elevates it to another level,” says Zeng. “Because if you think galleries, you first think of MoMA or the Met, you know, those high-end [museums] with big artists. But gallery shows have evolved over the years, so I definitely think a fan-art gallery is acceptable. [If] there’s a culture, there’s a community who appreciates those arts.”

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