“What does BTS mean to you?”
The question wasn’t meant to make her cry but Paola, a 24-year-old Italian student who just moved to Seoul two weeks ago, teared up.
“Sorry, I get emotional just talking about it,” she said.
It is Monday at 9 p.m. outside the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) in central Seoul and the metallic-silver building was gleaming in vivid violet when BTS fans began flocking to see the Seoul landmark transform into a gigantic artwork celebrating the 10th anniversary of the K-pop megaband’s debut.
“When I graduated from university, I was lost and didn’t know what to do,” Paola continued. “Their song ‘Paradise’ tells you not to run — to not ever rush your life. I was so lost in life but I moved to the other part of the world knowing just a little Korean, not ‘for’ them but ‘through’ them and ‘thanks to’ them.”
Korea’s capital city turned purple to celebrate BTS’s 10th anniversary as part of the “2023 BTS Festa,” but for the septet’s faithful fan club ARMY, the Festa is not just two weeks of fancy lights and artwork but a time to come together and remind themselves why they love BTS.
While the band’s agency HYBE and the Seoul Metropolitan Government teamed up to light up major tourist spots in purple starting Monday, ARMY organized their very own “Festa” in different corners of Seoul by renting and decorating cafes to welcome anyone who would like to sit down and join in the companionship of their fellow BTS-lovers.
From dawn to sunset, Seoul became a giant festival house for BTS fans, some of whom even timed their visit to Korea for the special week to see the sights and revisit their love for the band, its music and the 10-year bond between them.
ARMY’s cup of coffee
The cafes are especially popular among overseas fans or foreigners living in Korea, for whom bonding with other fans or taking part in events is not as easy as it is for native Koreans.
All the cafes are rented, decorated and advertised by fans who voluntarily took the time and money to create related merchandise — cup sleeves, photo cards, stickers, stamps, posters, placards, balloons, postcards and much more — and have them exhibited and shared with their fellow ARMY.
Renting out coffee shops for festivities such as this is a tradition in K-pop dating back to the early 2000s, or the era of boy band TVXQ!, when fans started the practice in hopes that the stars themselves would pop in for a visit. Debut anniversaries and members’ birthdays are the most common occasions when such events take place.
“I love it here, because it feels like you’re surrounded by BTS,” said Celic Casillas, a 28-year-old Mexican student studying at Sogang University, who had been drinking coffee out of BTS-decorated cups at the Tone & Manner cafe located in Hongdae, western Seoul.
“Getting tickets to concerts is really hard and you hardly get official events for fans. But we’re here because we all love BTS and we can share that together. Plus, it’s just so creative and bright here!”
Fan goods are sold at set prices or given out as a complimentary gift with the purchase of a coffee or dessert at the cafe. Different cafes have different pricing policies for fans, but most like to lower the reservation fees and choose a win-win strategy in which they get a boost in sales from visitors and fans can concentrate their funds on perfecting their gifts.
“This cafe is very generous, because not all of them give out a complete set of photo cards of all members,” said Krishia Olan, a student from the Philippines who came along with Casillas to the Hongdae cafe.
“I think just being here makes me feel happy and young. The great thing about BTS is that the fans are just as active as BTS, and they create a unique vibe together. BTS is different. It’s really colorful. It’s not your typical K-pop group.”
Accessing information is also quite easy, as fans and cafes actively promote such events on Twitter and Instagram. Fans are even sharing a map of must-visit spots with each other, making the tour much easier.
“We have had around 200 visitors since Saturday,” the owner of Cafe Oso in western Seoul’s Hongdae told the Korea JoongAng Daily on Wednesday. “We closed yesterday because that was the day of BTS’s 10th anniversary. I think about 80 percent of the visitors were from overseas.”
Rays of purple light
The tour does not stop at night. When the sun comes down, the lights come on.
Eleven spots designated by HYBE and the Seoul government started sporting their purple hues to visitors on Monday night. Seoul’s best-known tourist attractions will be lit in different purple-themed media artworks, most of them until June 25 but some until later.
One such place is the DDP, a landmark building in central Seoul built in 2013 by world-renowned late architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), where the reporter was asked by a tourist, “Are you ARMY?” on Monday at 9 p.m. when the lights were lit.
“We’re visiting Korea especially for this event,” a 53-year-old tourist named Nuria told the Korea JoongAng Daily in Spanish, adding that she doesn’t speak English or Korean but came to celebrate the monumental year.
“I remember the exact day I got to know BTS,” she said. “My son was in theater class and a student in that class performed a song. I didn’t know the song but liked the melody, and the student told me it was a BTS song. So I asked my son’s girlfriend to find and play that song. She did, and I loved the video.”
To Nuria, BTS is the savior that got her through the three hardest years she has endured since her divorce.
“BTS pulled me out of the tunnel I had been in for three years,” she said. “I fell in love with BTS like I’ve adopted seven new kids. It’s like a mother’s love. I always say I have one Mexican son and seven Korean sons.”
The Festa had its share of hiccups, however.
The water fountain on the Banpo Han River Bridge did not turn on at the scheduled time on Monday night and foreigners complained that it was difficult to find information related to the “2023 BTS Festa” in one place, leading some to even ask the Korea JoongAng Daily reporter about the event.
“We came here for the BTS lighting and we were waiting [for the event at the Banpo Bridge], but it didn’t happen so we are going back to our hotel,” said Destinee, a 24-year-old tourist from the United States, on Monday night.
Still, she was looking forward to the rest of the week to make up for that night.
“I came to Korea for BTS and I brought my friends with me,” she said. “It’s wonderful and it’s been worth it. We won’t be here for too long, just the first couple of days. But still, I’m very excited!”
Love goes on
BTS members did not forget to thank ARMY and express their love for their loyal fans.
“There were countless obstacles and love until a noun became a proper name, until BTS became BTS, until ARMY became ARMY — we built our very own world that no one else would understand,” RM said in a letter uploaded on Tuesday, the day of the band’s 10th anniversary of debut, on Weverse.
“I look to our second chapter,” the leader said. “I feel as if I could become anything. I will also be worried, anxious and in pain, but I will keep on going nonetheless.”
Jin, who is currently serving in the military, also left a letter through Weverse.
“It’s amazing how 10 years can move mountains but hasn’t changed the love between BTS and ARMY,” he said. “I hope you will stay with us until our bodies can no longer perform onstage.”
The band released a special single, “Take Two,” last Friday in celebration of the 10th anniversary which immediately topped music charts globally, landing at No. 1 on global streaming service Spotify’s Daily Top Song Global chart and debuting on the top spot of Japanese music chart Oricon’s Daily Digital Single Ranking.
BTS’s previous tracks are reappearing on Billboard music charts thanks to fans revisiting the songs to reminisce, such as the band’s first all-English track “Dynamite” (2020), which sat at No. 171 on the Global Excl. U.S. singles chart as of Wednesday.
An official book published by HYBE that looks back on the group’s 10 years of making history will be released on July 9, titled “Beyond the Story.” The book will be released in 23 languages including Korean, English and Japanese.
The grand finale of “2023 BTS Festa” will take place on Saturday in western Seoul’s Yeouido Han River Park. Exhibitions will be held in the afternoon, followed by a talk session with the group’s leader RM at 5 p.m., which will also be streamed live through Weverse fan community service. A special fireworks show will start at 8:30 p.m. at the park.
BY SO-YEON YOON , HALEY YANG, YONG-JUN CHO [email@example.com]